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NPV Critic Response Series: Big Cities Won't Rule

by Katie P. Kelly // Published October 14, 2011
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It is a common argument that switching to the National Popular Vote plan will alter the political landscape to a point where big cities will rule and small states will suffer. These arguments have appeared recently in articles by critics such as Rachel Alexander’s Oct. 6th post on townhall.com and rightwingnews.com and a blog on Sept. 6th from joshuapundit.blogspot.com that received recognition on varight.com

Rachel Alexander, for example, asserts:

“A national popular vote would transfer voting power to large urban cities favoring Democrats.”

Alexander’s statement may resonate on an emotional level with some of her readers, but she cites no facts to back up her claim. Facts actually contradict her argument. 

FairVote’s research and analysis on past presidential elections detail the numbers that prove large cities alone cannot rule presidential elections and that Democratic candidates won’t be favored for it in a NPV system. FairVote addresses this critique in its FAQs on the National Popular Vote plan. In addition, chapter 10 of Every Vote Equal, coauthored by the National Popular Vote’s John Koza, FairVote’s Rob Richie,and other analysts takes on this myth. All of FairVote’s research, including the recent Fuzzy Math report , concludes that a National Popular Vote plan for president is more representative and fair than the current system or proposed alternatives involving the division of a state’s electoral votes.

Overlooking the fact that most states are already ignored under state rules allocating electoral votes by winner-take-all, Alexander fails to understand that no candidate can win based on large cities or states alone –just as governors can’t win by focusing only on cities. You have to win votes wherever you can when every vote is equal.

Moreover, in stating that power will be “transferred” to large cities, it is assumed that the counterparts to this (small states) currently have more power, but this is also wrong. Alexander also wrongly assumes that candidates will campaign for the same voters. 

Here is the reality of it:

Small and rural states are heavily ignored in the current system. It is wrong to assume that power “transfers” to big cities when, in fact, it is not fairly distributed in the first place, nor are small states receiving even a majority of that power in the present.

Of the 15 lowest populated states in the country, only one state receives regular attention: New Hampshire. This means that at least 14 states small states and over 15 million people are ignored under the current Electoral College system simply because they are “predictable” and offer little reward in terms of electoral votes. 

In the 2004 election, only 12 states, home to less than 28% of the electorate, were of main focus. These states were also relatively concentrated in the Midwest. In the last few months of the 2008 election, more than 98% of campaign spending and events were in only15 states –representing barely a third of the nation. And, more than half of all time and resources were spent in just four states: Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  

Candidates cannot win with big cities alone. It would be foolish for a candidate to ignore voters in less-populated areas, even if a majority of Americans live in the metropolitan areas. A candidate could win every single vote cast in the 10 most populous states (including, of course, their big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Houston), but he or she would still not be able to win a majority of the popular votes to be elected. 

Candidates will court voters that will actually vote for them. Let’s be honest. If certain urban areas are strong Democratic holds, Republican candidates won’t waste their time trying to court die-hard liberals for votes – just as Democratic candidates won’t spend the majority of their time looking for votes in the heart of Wyoming (see Hardening Partisanship report).

In the current system, governed by the winner-take-all rule, candidates in the peak general election season have no incentive to campaign in safe states. The only states that matter are the ones that happen to be competitive. This can’t happen with a national popular vote for president. Candidates will have to court the voters that are most likely to vote for them as well as the ones that are somewhat likely. 

For example, in the 2004 election, John Kerry put his greatest attention into urban areas in Ohio, which he did tend to win in large numbers. George Bush’s campaign, however, mobilized many voters in the rural and “ex-urban” counties in Ohio that actually led him to win the statewide popular vote. Added to the votes won in urban areas – every vote counted.

Both major parties have shown an equal ability to carry the national popular vote in elections over the short, medium and long-term. In fact, the Republicans and Democrats have split the national popular vote in the past 26 elections back to 1904.

Overall, big cities will not take power from small states nor will Democrats be advantaged. A national popular vote for president provides a level playing field that is fair to both major parties and the American people.