The Path to a National Popular
by David Sirota
Right now, many are frustrated about Iowa
and New Hampshire voters having such oversized influence in America's
presidential elections. In a few months, as the general election
campaign unfolds, we will be similarly frustrated about Ohio and
Florida. Who arbitrarily gave this handful of states the disproportionate
power to determine our national political path?
When it comes to the Iowa caucuses and
the New Hampshire primary, the answer is the parties. They decide
which states select nominees first. In the general election, the
culprit is the Electoral College. Most states award their electoral
votes on a winner-take-all basis. However small the margin by
which a presidential candidate wins your state, that candidate
gets all your state's electoral votes. That means if you don't
live in a "battleground" like Florida or Ohio whose
statewide vote is perpetually up for grabs, you are ignored.
The nominating system is easily modified.
Parties can add early primary and caucus states if they choose.
Changing the general election, on the other hand, looks much harder.
The Electoral College and its negative consequences seem locked
into the Constitution.
But the operative word is seem.
The group National Popular Vote has developed
an ingenious path around this constitutional obstruction: States
can pass legislation mandating that all of their presidential
electoral votes go to the winner of the national popular vote-regardless
of the election outcome in their own state.
If, say, Democrat-dominated Vermont signed
on to the plan and a Republican won the national popular vote,
Vermont would award its electoral votes to the Republican candidate,
regardless of an overwhelming Democratic vote inside Vermont.
If Republican-dominated Utah signed on to the plan and a Democrat
won the popular vote, same thing-Utah's electors would go to the
The key element is the clause ensuring
the plan does not take effect until states representing a majority
of all electoral votes sign on. That way, the system launches
only when it has enough electoral votes behind it to guarantee
that the winner of the national popular vote is the winner of
the presidential election. No one state acts alone, and therefore
neither political party gets an undue advantage.
This plan would immediately change presidential
politics for the better.
As just one example, take the closely
divided city of Indianapolis. It is currently ignored by presidential
candidates because both parties know there is almost no chance
Indiana will vote anything other than Republican in a presidential
contest. Under the national popular vote plan, however, Indianapolis
would suddenly be just as worthy of candidate attention as a similarly
sized, closely divided city like Columbus, Ohio. That's because
geography would cease to determine the importance of a vote. In
the national popular vote system, a vote is a vote, regardless
of where a candidate gets it.
The public is clamoring for this kind
of fix. A 2007 Harvard University study found almost three-quarters
of Americans favor a national popular vote over the current system.
The problem is Republican operatives who
are trying to steer this public opinion into support for a partisan
scheme to rig elections permanently. Under the banner of democracy
and fairness, these apparatchiks began crafting plans to push
a ballot initiative in California that would unilaterally award
the state's electoral votes by congressional district, rather
than by winner-take-all. In other words, California's 53 congressional
districts would each be like a separate state with one electoral
vote going to whichever candidate won the presidential contest
in that district. Experts agree the result would probably be Republicans
gaining 22 electoral votes without doing a thing.
Not surprisingly, these Republicans are
not pushing the same plan for red states like Texas, North Carolina
and Georgia, where Democrats could make similar gains on a district-by-district
basis. But that hypocrisy is secondary, because to bill the scheme
as a pro-democracy reform is to lie through one's teeth. Consider
that if the 2000 election had been decided on a district-by-district
basis, George W. Bush's margin of Electoral College victory would
have actually grown, despite the fact that he lost the popular
Thankfully, the California initiative
was torpedoed by GOP infighting, but you can bet it will be back
soon. That is, unless states step up now. By passing national
popular vote bills in the upcoming 2008 legislative sessions,
state lawmakers can bring America closer to getting the democracy
our civics books pretend we already have.
David Sirota is the bestselling author
of "Hostile Takeover" (Crown, 2006). He is a senior
fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member
of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan research organizations.
His daily blog can be found at www.credoaction.com/sirota