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Electoral College Reform Draws Support from Both Democrats and Republicans

by Jules Leconte // Published July 14, 2010

If you’ve heard someone arguing for electoral reform designed to expand voter participation in the United States, chances are that person was a Democrat. It is also true that most advocacy groups focused on voter participation lean to the left. To date, the National Popular Vote plan for presidential election reform has demonstrated a similar trend, as the majority of state legislators endorsing National Popular Vote bills are members of the Democratic Party.  But as the 2000 election grows more distant, that trend is changing, most notably with the bipartisan support for the NPV plan last month in the recent landside win in the New York State senate, where over 80% of both Democrats and Republicans voted for the bill. Indeed, reforming the Electoral College is a non-partisan issue. Using the popular vote in presidential elections would benefit, in all instances, both Republican and Democratic interests.

"The National Popular Vote Initiative does not help one party or another. It just helps Americans in general."
– Illinois state Senator Kird Dillard (R), co-sponsor of a NPV bill

 

Despite a somewhat growing partisanship and polarizing in our recent “era of divided government,” the United States has nonetheless remained a centrist and politically balanced nation in the long term. A national popular vote for president would not change that fact, but actually further emphasize it. The two major parties have split the national popular vote in the last eight elections back to 1980, last twelve elections back to 1964, last sixteen elections back to 1948 and past twenty-eight elections back to 1900. Since 1932, 746.2 million popular votes have been cast for Democratic candidates for president and 745.5 million for Republicans (a thousandth of a percent gap overall.)

Though Republicans have been trailing Democrats in the last six elections by only two points in the popular vote, the electoral vote has actually increased the Democrats’ lead four-fold (1742 to the Republicans’ 1483, or an eight-point gap.) The Electoral College misrepresents the nature of presidential elections, and by extension of the American political system, as it exaggerates victories by giving candidates mandates they did not earn (see table below.) This trend is particularly flagrant in the last three elections Democratic candidates carried.


1988-2008 Presidential elections popular and electoral vote counts


 

Popular  vote

Electoral vote


Democratic Party

313,651,200 (51.1%)

1742 (54%)


Republican Party

299,640,945 (48.9%)

1483 (46%)


Total D+R

613,292,145 votes

3225 votes

Data source: http://www.uselectionatlas.org

 

As shown by gubernatorial and especially congressional elections, large pockets of Republican voters in safe ‘blue states’ such as California (nineteen Republican districts out of fifty-four) or Illinois (seven out of nineteen) see their votes wasted by the winner-take-all rule and are too often discouraged from voting in presidential elections. Conversely, many Republican voters living in more rural states also do not bother showing up to the polls on Election Day as their states are generally carried by the Republican candidate with comfortable margins. The turnout boost the National Popular Vote plan is expected to produce would thus benefit these two categories of voters tremendously as Republican candidates would at last be competitive in large states, while simultaneously keeping – and perhaps expanding – their advantage in small states.

Another point which continuously fails to be addressed by proponents and adversaries of the plan is the rapidly changing demographics of America. While many Republicans believe that the Hispanic vote, for instance, can be ‘contained’ to a few border states with the Electoral College, legal immigrants have actually been migrating and settling in all Southwestern states, mainly Nevada, Arizona and Colorado (in relative terms). If this trend were to continue, as the 2010 Census will certainly confirm, the Republican control of these states’ electoral votes will inevitably be threatened.

The Electoral College also stands as a figure de proue for federalism and the defense of small states, while it effectively lessens their national influence and encourages candidates – Republican or Democratic – to ignore them altogether. These states do have a disproportionately high number of electoral votes per capita, yet their voting power – the possibility for a single or a group of states to change the outcome of an election by casting their vote – is infinitesimal, albeit slightly greater than what it would be under a popular vote election. Whatever little influence they gain through their voting power, they lose much more through the absence of presidential visits, ad spending and attention from major parties. During the 2008 campaign, thirty-two states received no visits at all and 90% of all campaign events occurred in only eleven states. Identical patterns can be noticed off the campaign trail, as President Obama focused most of his attention and official visits to states he most narrowly carried or lost in 2008 (North Carolina and Missouri, respectively). Similarly, if the $780 billion stimulus package is being spread fairly across the country, the most innovative projects it finances, such as a high-speed train line or highway reconstruction are all too seldom situated in safe states, big or small.

"If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more."
– Ari Fleischer (former White House Press Secretary, Washington Post, 2009)


This inequality of treatment from the federal government and loss of influence are two of the main reasons why many Republican legislators and voters have come out in favor of a national popular vote for president. With every vote counting the same, which passing this bill will ensure, Republicans in California, New York – and above all in heavily ‘red states’– will finally have a reason to go to the polls in great numbers, and presidential candidates a reason to acknowledge the importance of the forty-odd non-battleground states, a majority of which are historically Republican.

Note: When critics of the Electoral College argue that this system is inherently undemocratic because it disregards the ‘one person, one vote’ principle, a standard response from conservatives is that the United States is “a republic; not a democracy.” The definition of a republic is “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” Yet the representative of the executive branch is effectively chosen by a restricted body of citizens from less than fifteen states – far from what the founders envisioned for protection of the interests of all states.

The U.S. Constitution has shown, through its multiple amendments and contradictory Supreme Court decisions that it is a living body, which has adapted to the needs of the people it governs. It gives states “plenary power” to allocate their electoral votes however they see fit, and the reform we endorse polls at 70% nationally, with strong support from both Republican and Democratic voters. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has been introduced in almost every state and five states have enacted it. They were prompted to do so by utilitarian as much as ideological reasons. The coming months should see the bill passed in more states with large bipartisan support, building enough momentum to pass enough state legislatures to finally reach the necessary total of 270 electoral votes.