In Massachusetts, A Victory for Fair Elections

By Rob Richie
Yes! Magazine

Our current system for filling the highest office in the land is broken. The current Electoral College system of electing a president in separate state-by-state elections allows losers to win, creates opportunities for partisans to game the system, and leads to most voters' preferences being essentially ignored.

But with a stroke of his pen, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick yesterday showed that change is possible. By signing the National Popular Vote plan into law, Gov. Patrick made Massachusetts the sixth state to commit to awarding all of its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. The law will only go into effect when enough states have enacted identical legislation-i.e. when their total electoral votes add up to 270, the majority necessary to elect a president.

The National Popular Vote plan builds on states' exclusive power to decide how to allocate their electoral votes. Rather than pushing for a federal change to abolish the Electoral College, the plan uses state power to make it obsolete, guaranteeing that the White House goes to the candidate who earns the most votes.

For many Americans, George Bush's win in the 2000 presidential election-despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore by more than a half million votes-is enough reason to back reform. But it's not why the National Popular Vote plan passed the New York State Senate this summer by a vote of 52-7, with Republicans backing it 22-5 and Democrats 30-2. The current system is broken for just about everyone, election after election.

What's the Problem?

Today, nearly every state awards its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. If you win a state by 80 percent, you get all its electoral votes. If you only win a state by a single vote, you still get all its electoral votes. That means that you're not going to affect the final outcome by campaigning in states tilting strongly toward one major party-and that means you end up ignoring most of America. Consider a few facts:

  • Of 300 major party presidential campaign events tracked by The Washington Post between September 5 and November 4, 2008, 57 percent took place in the four large swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As tracked by CNN from Sept. 24 through Election Day, 55 percent of all presidential campaign ads aired in those same four states.
  • More than 98 percent of all campaign events and all campaign spending in the fall took place in 15 states that collectively represent only 37 percent of the nation's eligible voters, effectively sidelining two-thirds of all Americans.
  • Voter turnout in those 15 states was 6 percent higher than the rest of the country. In 2004, voters under 30 were a third more likely to vote if they lived in the 10 states with the closest races. It doesn't matter if your state is red or blue-if you know your vote won't count (and no one is working to get it), you're less likely to participate.
  • According to one of its key strategists, George W. Bush's campaign for re-election did not poll a single person who lived outside of one of 18 potential battleground states for the final 30 months of the campaign.

These patterns of neglect are getting worse. In 1960, for example, 24 states-with a total of 319 electoral votes between them-were true swing states, where a small shift in the vote could have changed who won the election. In 2008 only nine states, with a total of 115 electoral votes, were considered up for grabs. With partisan divisions showing every indication of becoming more intense, not less, the presidential battleground grows smaller every year.

The Alternative: Every Vote Counts

With a national popular vote, every vote-in every corner of every state-would be equal. Americans could get involved in presidential campaigns, in meaningful ways, in their own communities.

Every American voter should have equal power to elect a president and hold that person accountable. We use popular vote elections to choose every governor and member of Congress, so we know what such elections look like. You help your candidate win by talking to your neighbors, not calling strangers in Ohio or Florida. As the votes are tallied on election night, you know that your vote is counted on an equal basis with everyone else's-and that, when all the counting is done, the candidate with the most votes will win.

Many have assumed that the only way to establish a national popular vote is through amending the Constitution. To be sure, that's one potential approach. But states don't need to sit on their hands and accept their diminished role under the current rules. They have the power to take action. Indeed, they have a constitutional obligation to act.

That's because states have exclusive power to decide how to allocate electoral votes, a power characterized by the Supreme Court as "supreme" and "plenary." States also have the power to enter into formal, binding agreements. There are hundreds of examples of such "interstate compacts," from the Port Authority to the Colorado River Compact. Fewer than a thousand words, the National Popular Vote compact establishes that participating states will award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote in all 50 states. It is activated if-and only if-the number of participating states collectively have a majority of votes in the Electoral College.

States enter the compact one by one, passing a statute through regular legislative channels. If, by July, 2012, enough states have adopted the compact to collectively hold a majority of electoral votes, the agreement is set in stone for the year-and the White House is guaranteed to the candidate who wins the popular vote. All attention before and after the election will be on the popular vote. Gone will be the red-blue maps on election night and the early projections of winners while western states are still voting. Every voter will count the same, whether it is cast in Maine, Alaska, Texas or Florida.

How Close Are We?

Massachusetts' passage of the law means that 27 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate the National Popular Vote plan are now committed.

Massachusetts' passage of the law means that 27 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate the National Popular Vote plan are now committed. Since the plan's launch in 2006, it has also passed into law in Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington. Bills have been introduced in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., earned the votes or sponsorship of nearly 2,000 legislators, and won approval in 30 legislative chambers. Endorsers include The New York TimesLos Angeles Times, columnists E.J Dionne and Hendrik Hertzberg, and former members of Congress Tom Campbell (R-CA), Jake Garn (R-UT), John Anderson (R-IL) and Birch Bayh (D-IN). A slew of reform groups have signed on, including FairVote, Common Cause, Demos, the Brennan Center, and the League of Women Voters.

Of course, not everyone supports the proposal. Some argue that the Electoral College helps small states-despite the fact that almost every small state is considered "safe" and is therefore ignored. Some fear that third party candidates will do better with a national popular vote, or that we can't count popular votes fairly. But advocates like FairVote and National Popular Vote have addressed these questions thoroughly and well.With media interest beginning to rise, the proposal's popularity will keep growing. In polls taken by National Popular Vote since the 2008 elections, the number of citizens supporting a national popular vote for president reflects landslide support in many states, including 78 percent in Florida, 75 percent in Iowa, 73 percent in Michigan, 72 percent in Nevada, 74 percent in North Carolina and 78 percent in Pennsylvania. Rarely does a state's poll number dip below 70 percent-and never below 60 percent.

Here's the bottom line: With a national popular vote, presidential campaigns would seek votes everywhere. Every vote-in every corner of every state-would be equal. Americans could get involved in presidential campaigns, in meaningful ways, in their own communities. With the National Popular Vote plan, we finally have a roadmap for change.