Response to “Deciding the President by Popular Vote is a Flawed Idea” by Charles Lane of the Washington Post (January 23, 2012)
Will Reform of Elections Become Campaign Issue? Should we Elect Presidents by Popular Vote? | Democracy, elections, and voting at Democracy Chronicles
Author: Rich Rubino
Washington Post Editorial writer Charles Lane maintains that “Deciding the president by popular vote is a flawed idea.” (http://wapo.st). Pointing to the 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Mr. Lane worries that had the National Popular Vote Initiative (NPVI) been in effect, that: ” . . . Bush would have had an incentive to scrounge for every vote in states he had locked up, like Texas, or the ones he had consigned to Gore.”
What Mr. Lane fails to understand, or point out, is that under the current winner-take-all electoral system, in the 2000 election, the voters of Texas and the voters of states predominantly voting for Al Gore were marginalized. In effect, their votes did not count at all. Since the states referred to by Lane are “winner-take-all” states, all of the electoral votes went to just one candidate.
Under the winner-take-all electoral system, there is a “disincentive” for Presidential candidates to care about voters except those voters from battleground states, and because there are only about 15 battleground states, 35 states and their voters, are essentially ignored. The concerns of Hawaii voters, New York voters, and Vermont voters for example, are pushed aside so that the candidates can speak with voters whose votes mean something, such as those voters in the battleground states of New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Nevada. This is not good for the country and is not good for the candidates. Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar (1991-1999) puts it best: “People who are in elected office remember what they learned when they were campaigning. It’s important that these candidates campaign in all states, not just in the swing states.”
Under the NPVI, there would be a real incentive for Presidential candidates to visit “all” the states in the nation and to discuss their ideas with all of the voters. There would be no such thing as battleground states. Every voter from every state would be important to Presidential candidates. A vote in Texas or in Massachusetts or in California would be commensurate with vote from Florida or Ohio or Iowa.
Lane goes on to say that instead of abolishing the Electoral College, the NPVI is attempting to “devise a way around it.” This is incorrect. The NPVI is not an end-run around the Electoral College. The purpose of the NPVI is to modify the way in which electors are chosen by individual states so that the winner of the Electoral College reflects the winner of the popular vote, awarding the Presidency to the candidate who garners the most votes nationally.
Lane is also mistaken as to the relationship, or lack thereof, of the U.S. Constitution to the Electoral College. He states: “Instead of trying to abolish the electoral college through a constitutional amendment . . . National Popular Vote devised a way to get around it.” This is a red herring argument. The Framers of the Constitution did not envisage the current winner-take-all electoral system. In fact, they did not mandate or prescribe a specific method for the states to award their electoral votes. Accordingly, they gave the states the plenary authority to allocate their electoral votes in any way they should decide. Article 11, Section 1, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution asserts: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct a number of electors.”
Though the winner-take-all system has become ingrained in our thinking, it was not the vision of the Founding Fathers. In fact, in 1789, most states only allowed property owners suffrage. This gradually changed, not by a constitutional amendment, but through a state-by-state process. Similarly, making the change to award electoral votes based on the winner of the popular vote could also be made by each state. A federal constitutional amendment is not required. Making the kind of change suggested by the NPVI fully comports with the constitutionally-granted power to the states to appoint their electors in any way they choose. Accordingly, the NPVI is in no way an “end-run” around the U.S. Constitution or the Electoral College system.
Lane admonishes, “this plan would leave the election to the states and the District, which means that the “national” popular vote would still be the summation of 51 different elections, each run according to slightly different rules and procedures.” Lane fails to understand that this is the system that we already employ today. States, not the federal government, have plenary authority in awarding their electoral votes. Each state that employs the current winner-take-all system, where the candidate who garners the most votes in a state is awarded the entire slate of electors, was instituted by that state. It was originally employed not by the Founders, but by majority parties in State Legislatures trying to maximize electoral votes for “their” Presidential nominees.
Lane also warns: “Think how much chaos surrounded hanging Chad and other variations among the county-level vote counters of Florida in 2000. Now project that over the entire country.” In actuality, recounts would be far less likely to be actuated under the National Popular Vote Initiative. Fair Vote conducted a study of 7,645 statewide elections from 1980-2006. They found that only 23 of these elections resulted in a recount. That is a ratio of just one recount for every 332 elections. Over 90% of these recount elections resulted in the original winner maintaining the win. On the national level, under the current winner-take-all electoral system, there are 51 potential recounts. To date, there have been 2,135 statewide Presidential elections.
Lane further advises that instituting the NPVI would “encourage third- or fourth-party candidacies whose appeal might not extend beyond a few large states or a single region.” History proves the opposite to be the case. Non-major party candidates who appeal mainly to just one region of the country can see their vote totals magnified in the Electoral College. In 1948, Strom Thurmond, the nominee of the States Rights Democratic Party, captured just 2.4% of the national vote, yet he received 39 electoral votes from four southern states. This scenario repeated itself in 1968 when American Independence Party nominee George Wallace, who won just 13.5% of the national vote, won 46 electoral votes because he managed to win five southern states.
Alternatively, more centrist non-major party candidates who appeal to a more widespread cross-section of constituencies and garner votes from all regions of the nation have seen their votes completely nullified by the Electoral College. In 1980, Independent Presidential candidate John B. Anderson garnered 6.6% of the national vote, yet the more than 5.7 million people who voted for him were not counted in the final tally because he failed to win a single state.
This scenario was experienced on a larger scale in 1992, when Independent Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot mustered a very respectable 18.9% of the vote. Despite the fact that nearly one in five American voters cast their vote for Perot, Perot received “0” votes in the Electoral College. In this situation, the votes of nearly twenty million Americans were totally disregarded at the conclusion of the electoral process.
Finally, Lane asks: “Do we really want a popular-vote system that could easily produce presidents based on 25 or 30 percent of the ballots cast?” The answer is “No. But these fears are unfounded. No winning Presidential candidate has ever garnered less than the 39.8% of the vote that Abraham Lincoln mustered in 1860. In addition, at the state level, between 1948-2007, 98% of Gubernatorial elections resulted in the winning candidate garnering at least 45% of the vote. In fact, there is not a solitary instance of a candidate winning with less than 35% of the vote.
For Lane to defend the current winner-take-all electoral system, he must accept that the vote of some will be courted more than others, that specifically situated constituencies will garner a disproportionate interest from candidates, and that it is acceptable for a candidate who does not muster the plurality or majority of the votes to be elected President. Finally, Lane employs a sports analogy to show why Americans have no real reason to gripe should the winner of the popular vote lose the election in a winner-take-all electoral system. He asserts that it is “like griping that your basketball team lost even though it made more free throws.” A more accurate sports analogy to describe the current winner–take-all electoral system would be that after the Super Bowl game next week wherein the New England Patriots defeat the New York Giants 23 to 22, the referees huddle after the game and subsequently proclaim that despite the fact that the Patriots have scored more points, the Giants have won the Super Bowl because during the game the Giants racked up more completed passes, had more yards rushing, and received more first downs. Would this be fair? “You” be the judge.
About the Author
Rich Rubino of Marblehead, MA is the author of The Political Bible of Little Known Facts in American Politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and Communications (Media Track) from Assumption College and an M.A. in Broadcast Journalism from Emerson College.