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NPV & George Will's own "simplistic majoritarianism"

by Jack Santucci // Published October 12, 2006
...a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.

- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

George Will today launched an attack on the National Popular Vote campaign, lauding California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto early this month of an interstate compact whereby states would agree to award their Electors to the popular vote-winning presidential candidate.

Condemning the plan as driven by "simplistic majoritarianism," Will simplistically dismissed reality in favor of tired arguments for an undisputedly antidemocratic anachronism. Today he became the next in a line of misinformed commentators citing 'benefits' that the Electoral College never was designed to bestow.

I reproduce the whole here, boldfacing some especial points of contention.

From Schwarzenegger, a Veto for Voters' Good

By George F. Will Thursday, October 12, 2006; A27

California's governor has demonstrated virtue, understood as the good we do when no one is watching. With his state and the nation paying no attention to an anti-constitutional campaign to alter the way presidents are chosen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that, had it become law, would have imparted dangerous momentum to a recurring simple-mindedness.

The bill would have committed California to cast its electoral votes -- today, 55 -- for whichever candidate receives the most popular votes nationally. The commitment would have been contingent on a compact with other similarly committed states, all having a combined total of at least 270 electoral votes.

Such legislation has been introduced in six states and passed by Colorado's Senate. Advocates offer two rationales:

First, California and other states that are not closely contested battlegrounds are not "relevant." (A state with more than one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency is "irrelevant"? Please.) What is meant is that uncontested states are "neglected" by presidential campaigns, so direct popular election of presidents -- the point of the multi-state compact -- would increase voter interest in the many states (by one count, 37, 34 and 37 in the past three elections) that are not considered swing states.

Will hasn't done his homework. Despite accounting for over 12% of the US population, California is irrelevant in presidental campaigns in terms of TV ads and visits. Schwarzenegger conceded the point in his own veto message, saying, "I appreciate the intent of this measure to make California more relevant in the presidential campaign..."

But it is disproportionate to traduce, by simplification, sophisticated constitutional arrangements just to make campaigns more stimulating for some states. Furthermore, the electoral vote system is a wholesome political market: It provides steady incentives for parties to change the attributes that make them uncompetitive in many states. How long will the GOP be content not to contest California?

NPV will make campaigns more stimulating not for "some states" but for all voters. Such is the nature of a national and popular vote.

The system aims not just for majority rule but rule by certain kinds of majorities . It encourages candidates to form coalitions of states with various political interests and cultures. Such coalitions can be assembled only by a politics of accommodation. So the electoral college system discourages attempts to build narrow ideological or geographical majorities. Today the system is helping the Democratic Party by nudging it to be less of a coastal party -- less reliant on a risky 20-state strategy in presidential elections.

So would a national popular vote. We have a two-party system, but we have far more that two kinds of American. A "coalition of [voters] with various political interests and cultures" will be a more accurate coalition than are the "coalitions of states" Will likes. Those coalitions of states are really coalitions of battleground states, of which there are ever fewer.

The second argument for the multi-state compact is: The possibility of the winner of the popular vote losing the electoral vote contest violates the value that trumps all others -- majoritarianism. Well.

Never mind that in 42 of the 46 elections since 1824 (all but 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) for which we have popular vote totals, that did not happen. Which suggests that the assault on the electoral vote system is driven by simplistic majoritarianism, which would shatter the two-party system that is conducive to temperate politics.

Anyone bemoaning the polarization of America and its Congress would deny the two-party system has guaranteed us "temperate politics." Will here further implies there is something fundamentally intemperate about third parties. A separate question, perhaps, but the claim raises eyebrows.

What's simplistic here, more importantly, is Will's understanding of what props up a two-party system. We could expect a national popular vote to do the same. The reason is Duverger's Law - generally speaking, that single-winner elections by plurality (or winner-take-all) tend to produce two-party systems because utility-conscious voters will avoid "spoiler" candidates. Under NPV, we're dealing with a single winner, and the winner of the nationwide plurality gets the Electors.

That electoral vote system (combined with the winner-take-all allocation of votes in all states but Maine and Nebraska) makes it very difficult for third-party presidential candidates to be competitive. In 1992 Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote but no state and therefore no electoral votes. Direct popular election of presidents would be an incentive for fragmentation of the electorate by the proliferation of factional candidacies.

Imagine 2008 with independent candidacies by, say, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo (deport illegal immigrants), Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha (out of Iraq immediately), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (independence from the two parties is a virtue) and Jesse Jackson (he would think of a reason). None could win, but cumulatively they could prevent the major-party winner from reaching even 40 percent.

Not much would change. If anything, because of the need to win a nationwide plurality, voters would be even more spoiler-averse.

And the multi-state compact cannot include a runoff provision. That would require a constitutional amendment; 34 senators can prevent a constitutional amendment from being sent to the states for ratification, and many more than 17 of the smaller states benefit from the additional weight the electoral vote system gives them.

The present system precludes a runoff provision. So what?

It is perverse that the 2000 election, which culminated with the lawyers' riot in Florida, is cited to undermine an electoral vote system that prevented 2000 from being a calamity. If, in presidential elections, popular votes were poured into one national bucket, a close election such as the one in 1960, which was decided by fewer votes (118,574) than there were precincts (166,064), would unleash a coast-to-coast frenzy of litigation -- about ballot design, voting hours, alleged voting-machine malfunctions, etc. The electoral vote system quarantines electoral disputes to a few closely contested states.

What's more likely? Several 1960s or more 2000s? More 2004s? Moreover, should fearing a "lawyers' riot" trump having a democratic election and respecting the principle of one person, one vote?

Under the multi-state compact, Californians, who in 2004 supported John Kerry by a popular vote margin of 1.2 million, would have seen their electoral votes swell President Bush's winning margin. In 1960 and 1976, too, California's electoral votes would have gone to candidates rejected by Californians.

They should understand what their governor has demonstrated: Sometimes the loveliest word in America's political lexicon is "veto."

The choice is between 50 separate state elections and one national election for the one most important national office. Gov. Schwarzenegger himself was elected in one statewide election, and California is a diverse state. Does anyone propose implementing a county-by-county Electoral College for gubernatorial elections there?