Forbes: NPV a "dumb, destructive move"

by Hendrik Hertzberg // Published October 3, 2006
Fact and Comment Dumb, Destructive Move Steve Forbes 10.09.06, 12:00 AM ET

An invidious effort is under way to undermine or abolish the Electoral College.

Actually, it"s an open, aboveboard way to use the mechanism of the Electoral College to achieve the goal of election by the people.

Common Cause--a liberal Washington pressure group--among others, is pushing to change to direct elections of our presidents from the system we've had since the Constitution was ratified. Currently (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska), the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in a state wins its electoral votes, which are equal to its total representation in Congress.

It"s not true that it"s been this way from the beginning. The framers-who left it entirely up to the state legislatures to decide how electors would be chosen-assumed that most states would do it district by district, and for the first few decades that"s what most of them did. But after a few states decided to leverage their clout by switching to winner-take-all, the rest felt they had no choice but to follow suit as a defensive maneuver.

In 2004 John Kerry carried California, thus winning its 55 electoral votes.

So why would California want to adopt a measure that would have forced it to give its electoral votes to George W. Bush? Mr. Forbes shows no curiosity about this seeming paradox.

The California legislature recently passed a bill that would award that state's 55 electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. The Colorado state senate passed similar legislation a few months ago. The California bill will take effect when enough other states to provide a majority of electoral votes do the same. Most people react positively to the notion of direct elections for the presidency, since that's the way we choose all of our other elected leaders. But such a system nationwide would have destructive, long-term consequences.

Yet "the way we choose all of our other elective leaders" does not have any "destructive, long-term consequences" whatsoever, even in states that are larger than most countries, like California, Texas and New York. Why not? Mr. Forbes does not explain.

Uniting the Nation

The virtues of the Electoral College are enormous. Candidates are forced to wage national campaigns.

Exactly wrong. General election campaigns are conducted exclusively in a handful of "battleground" states. Voters in safe or "spectator" states-the overwhelming majority-are ignored.

They have to win an outright majority of electoral votes to capture the White House. Contenders with narrow sectional, racial or ideological appeal thus have no chance of triumphing.

Unless they manage to eke out very narrow pluralities in enough states to put together a majority of electoral votes, while losing by a landslide everywhere else. That seldom happens, of course, but a narrowly-based candidacy certainly has a better shot of winning under the status quo than it would in a popular-vote election.

Ours is an extraordinarily diverse nation. While most of us share basic principles, we see many issues very differently. For example, the Republican Party of Iowa is keenly interested in social issues such as abortion, marriage and embryonic stem cell research. The New Hampshire Republican Party, however, is much more libertarian and as such is more focused on taxes and beating back attempts to further regulate gun control. Abortion is the leading issue with only a relative handful of party members.

There is even more diversity among individuals. There are Iowa Republicans who care about taxes and New Hampshire Republicans who care about social issues. Diversity is a reason for making voters-not states per se-the entities that count in a national election.

The Electoral College thus tamps down divisions instead of inflaming them. It pushes serious candidates to bring diverse groups together. Yet while encouraging candidates to put together national efforts in order to win, the College also compels them to pay attention to local issues they might otherwise ignore.

Only in battleground states. Why is it a good thing for Presidential candidates to play attention to local issues in ten states and totally ignore them in forty states? Come to think of it, wouldn"t it be better for national candidates to run on national issues?

In so-called battleground states candidates quickly learn what's on the minds of voters. The system, in short, keeps wannabe national leaders more closely attuned to grassroots sentiments.

Another virtue: While America has had numerous third parties, the current system invariably sees one of the major parties co-opting, in one way or another, issues that third parties advocate. This is not a bad institutional bias for a diverse, sprawling nation such as ours.

A direct popular vote, by contrast, would inflame rather than ameliorate divisions. Candidacies would proliferate for the general election. An individual could win the White House with as little as 20% of the popular vote. This new system would work against putting together broad-based coalitions.

If this analysis were correct, we"d have multi-party systems at the state and local levels. In elections for the House, the Senate, and the governorships, the fact that there can be only one winner pretty much dictates a system of two major parties. Why should the dynamic be different at a national level?

Runoffs? They'd require a Constitutional Amendment.

Good idea. But states get along without runoffs and they don"t end up with proliferating candidacies and 20% winners. Also, under the status quo, a Presidential candidate could win 100% of a state"s electoral votes with 20% of the popular vote, too-in theory. In practice, it doesn"t happen.

With a direct popular vote, Washington would have to set regulations for our elections.

If true, that would be a good thing. Every other democracy has uniform voting rules.

Voting hours vary from state to state: New York, for instance, keeps its polls open for 15 hours, other states for only 11 or 12. We'd also have to set uniform rules for absentee ballots. And all this would require another Constitutional Amendment.

No it wouldn"t. It could be done by statute. In fact, if you take Bush v. Gore seriously, it could be done by court order.

Our 175,000 election districts would also require immense policing to ensure legitimacy.

It already does, but it doesn"t get it. Legitimacy is very shaky under the status quo.

After all, in several recent presidential elections the change in a few votes in each district would have swung the elections the other way.

This danger is far greater under the status quo. See Florida 2000, where a change in a few votes in a few districts in a single state-not in "each" district, i.e., every district in every state-actually did swing the election the other way. And see Ohio 2004, where the same shoe was very nearly on the other foot.

Critics complain that the Electoral College forces candidates to focus on a dozen or so battleground states, ignoring the rest of the country. But a popular-vote-only election would have candidates bypassing all but a handful of large states. Urban areas would be the focus of campaigners; rural and smaller suburban regions would be ignored.

Nonsense. Campaigns would go where the voters are, i.e., everywhere. As it is now, candidates already concentrate on major media markets, but even those are ignored all but a handful of states. If Forbes"s analysis were correct, gubernatorial and senatorial candidates would ignore rural and suburban areas of their states. Even more telling, commercial advertisers and marketers would ignore rural and suburban consumers. But they don"t, because the cost per thousand of reaching customers is roughly the same everywhere. It"s the same with voters.

The 2000 presidential election was the first since 1888 in which a second-place winner of the popular vote won the presidency. The difference in votes was infinitesimal,

Half a million is not infinitesimal. It"s a thousand times bigger than the Florida margin and five times bigger than Kennedy"s margin over Nixon in 1960

and there was considerable evidence of voter fraud in various parts of the country. But more to the point, both Al Gore and George Bush would have waged very different campaigns had the contest been determined by the winner of the most votes nationwide. They certainly wouldn't have spent as much time in midsize or small states, such as Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Wisconsin and West Virginia were battleground states. That"s why candidates spent time in them. But twelve of the thirteen smallest states were non-battleground states-as were four of the five largest states. Candidates spent virtually no time in any of them. But Mr. Forbes is right that Gore and Bush would have waged very different campaigns. They would have campaigned everywhere in the country. More important, it would have been worth their while, and worth the while of their citizen supporters, to mount grassroots volunteer campaigns everywhere. That would have included states in which they were guaranteed to lose-or win.

Which leads to another important point: The Electoral College usually dampens postelection conflicts when a vote is close. In 1960, for example, the popular vote was a virtual tie, but the Electoral College tally was decisive.

Historically inaccurate. The Republican National Committee"s lawyers tried everything they could to reverse the 1960 result.

Formally abolishing the Electoral College would involve a Constitutional Amendment, which would require the approval of three-fourths of the states. Most small and a goodly number of midsize states wouldn't want to see their relative power diluted, so such an amendment would have little chance of ratification. The California-Colorado method is a way to get around this formidable barrier.

Exactly. That"s the point. But again, the status quo marginalizes the great majority of states-small, large, and midsize alike. In 2004, two thirds of Presidential candidate time and three quarters of Presidential campaign money got spent in just five states.

Why get rid of a system that helps hold the country together to replace it with one that would balkanize it?

If Mr. Forbes is serious about this, he ought to start a movement to bring the blessings of the current electoral college system to the individual states. His home state, New Jersey, has 22 counties. Perhaps he should propose an amendment to the New Jersey state constitution under which all the votes in each county would be given to whichever candidate for governor or senator gets a plurality in that county. That would save candidates a lot of time, because, they could limit their campaigning-and their issues-to three or four "battleground counties," while ignoring voters in the rest of the state.