Are We Any Closer To A National Popular Vote?

10/22/2017 07:29 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2017
Cody Lyon

Imagine the day when a Democratic vote from solid red Alabama carries the same weight as a Republican vote from deep blue California during a presidential election.

Reformation of the Electoral College and a more fair and representative way to choose the president is within reach. But it will take patient, muscular grassroots efforts at the state level to bring change —and leave the nation with a more fair and representative system, where every American's vote counts, regardless what state you live in.

Problems surrounding the current Electoral College stem from state winner-take-all statutes in the system — state laws that were not even passed by a majority of states until the election of the eleventh president, James Polk. The U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 1) gives the states exclusive control over awarding their electoral votes.

State legislatures have the power to reform the current system if they believe it is broken. And, considering that four of five voters— in four out of five states —are politically ignored during our presidential elections, systemic reform would seem to be in order.

"The problem with the Electoral College is that it creates a presidential election system where the majority of the country's interests are essentially irrelevant," said Maclen Zilber, a political consultant and co-founder of Jacobson & Zilber Strategies in Los Angeles.

He says when the Electoral College was enacted, nobody could have imagined that there would be such a massive discrepancy in size between the nation's biggest states and smallest states, or that one party could have the majority of the country's voting base but a tiny fraction of the nation's geographic area.

Since the current system allows presidential candidates to ignore a vast majority of the people who live in deep-red or deep-blue states, those states become even more polarized—because nobody from the “other” party is even communicating there, Zilber says.

Standing in the way of traditional reform is primarily the Constitution, according to Dr. Lonna Atkeson, a Professor of Political Science, Regents' Lecturer, and Director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy and the Institute of Social Research at the University of New Mexico.  Amending the Constitution would be a very long and difficult process.

But, the other process to watch, albeit slow moving, is the National Popular Vote initiative—an effort that would use a state compact approach. This is a state-by-state legislative process. She says the initiative is a sustainable route to electoral college reform, but it’s hard to say how long it will take to pass.

During the 2016 presidential election, almost 60 percent of the nation's voters cast a ballot according to the U.S. Vote Foundation. But that varied from state to state. In fact, they say the top five states as far as turnout were considered either battleground or highly competitive.

"Currently, what we see is that when the presidential race is seen as a toss-up, turnout increases relative to years where the race is not competitive—say 1992 or 1996—and in competitive years, in competitive states, turnout increases can be substantial. This suggests that if every vote counted equally across the states it could have a positive impact on turnout," said Atkeson.

The National Popular Vote bill ensures that every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election.

"The National Popular Vote bill has been enacted into law by 11 states totaling 165 Electoral Votes," said Patrick Rosenstiel, Senior Consultant to National Popular Vote effort, a bipartisan organization who says its specific purpose is to study, analyze and educate the public regarding its proposal to implement a nationwide popular election of the President of the United States.

In order for the bill to “go into effect” nationwide, it would need to be passed by enough states that together have at least another 105 electoral votes. As of this writing, at least one chamber in 12 additional state houses, who have a combined total of 96 electoral votes, have passed the National Popular Vote bill.

"The biggest impediment to reform is an aversion to change. But legislative leaders across the political spectrum are losing confidence in a system that relegates far too much political power in the hands of shrinking political audiences in a small number of battleground states," said Rosenstiel.

He says the organization welcomes all voices to the effort and urges them to focus their attention and energy on enacting the National Popular Vote plan on a state-by-state basis. The best way to do this is to visit their web site www.nationalpopularvote.com, get informed and write your legislature.

"This effort gets done one state at a time. We encourage state-based, bi-partisan (non-partisan) advocacy, " said Rosenstiel. "This is where grassroots action can make a difference," he says.

But there are reality checks to keep in mind, even if the compact were to pass, it's likely it would face court challenges.

"Constitutionally, states appear to be able to make their own decisions on this, but it would become a constitutional court battle at that point," said Lonna Atkeson.

In December 2016, CBS News reported that by 54 percent to 41 percent margin, more Americans favor amending the Constitution to elect the U.S. president by popular vote (most votes cast in the entire country) rather than the Electoral College. The public has held this view going back to 1987, the report said. CBS also noted that, not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats hold different views with most Republicans apparently fine with the system as is.

"Republicans likely support the (current) Electoral College system, and have increased support for it since 2016, because they appear to win more often when the electoral college and the popular vote diverge. At least that’s what two of the last 5 elections tell them," said Atkeson.

Not only that, Atkeson says conservatives are generally anti-majoritarian in their outlook. They don't necessarily believe that the best rule is always whoever wins the most votes, while liberals are generally supportive of the notion of majority rule.

"Perhaps if the GOP lost an election because of the electoral college that might motivate them differently, but even then I’m not sure a conservative person would necessarily be inclined to majority rule," Atkeson says.

I asked Mary Anna Manusco, founder of Politicalhype.com, a conservative blog focusing on Florida and national politics and a social media strategist for presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, if there were any scenario or change in the political tides that would lead to bi-partisan buy in on Electoral College reform--such as the National Popular Vote.

"No, because one side is always happy with the result of the election," said Manusco.

It’s widely assumed that democrats would like to see the electoral college abolished. Nonetheless, it would likely take a Democrat winning the presidential election—while losing the popular vote—to hasten real change, according to Maclen Zilber.

“If both parties come to view the electoral college as something that could hurt either party in any given election, they are more likely to eliminate it than if it's viewed as something that helps one party over the other.But the National Popular Vote compact is neither a Republican or Democratic according to Patrick Rosenstiel, who adds that he has never voted for a Democrat in his life.

"The National Popular Vote is an American idea. I think the Arizona House as well as Oklahoma Senate votes to pass the bill speak volumes. Republicans don’t believe battleground state voters should be more relevant than fly-over state voters any more than Democrats or Independents do," said Rosenstiel.

He argues that voters of all political persuasions should check their jeseys at the door, do what’s right for the Republic and embrace a system where their Party’s candidate can campaign in all fifty states and line up and beat the other side,.

It goes without saying, American voters are dramatically polarized politically. And far to many voters aren’t engaged in politics. But it’s likely, that much of that disaffection with voting and the regional political polarization, is due at least in part, to the the country being sectioned off every time we elect a president. The current, winner takes all electoral college formula, seems to violate all the logic and laws that defines what is a fair vote—one person, one vote.

Political columnist Cliston Brown goes further and blisters the Electoral College as undemocratic and ridiculous. He told me in an email that the United States is the only purported democracy that has such a convoluted and undemocratic system. Even Russia scoffs at our system, he says.

"Some years ago, when George W. Bush lectured Vladimir Putin on democracy during a joint press conference, Putin responded calmly that in Russia, the president is the person who gets the most votes," said Brown.

To get educated and involved in the movement to bring about a National Popular Vote visit http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/.

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