Reactions to David Broder's column on the National Popular Vote

by Rob Richie // Published April 3, 2006
The Washington Post's David Broder, one of the great political reporters of his generation and now a columnist for that paper, on March 26 wrote a column critical of the National Popular Vote plan for presidential elections -- one that involves states joining a formal agreement to allocate their electoral votes collectively to the winner of the national popular vote once the number of states participating in that agreement have enough electoral votes to guarantee election of the president.

I respect Broder's opinions, but obviously disagree with his conclusion. He are my answers to each of his concerns.

"An End Run Around the Constitution" By David Broder, Washington Post, March 26, 2006
This headline given to Broder's column by Post editors already reflects significant misunderstanding of the National Popular Vote proposal. There is absolutely no question that states have every right to enter into this agreement. The Constitution gives states plenary power over how to allocate electoral votes and authorizes states to enter into formal agreements called interstate compacts. Indeed I would argue states have an obligation to pursue this proposal.

Having most/all states use the unit rule for allocating all electoral votes to the statewide vote winner is not in the Constitution. Early in our history, most states didn't even hold elections to allocate electoral votes, and often have pursued devices to divide their electoral votes between more than one candidates. Our founders decided that states should have the authority to do what they see as best for their state and the nation. If it is in a state's interest to have a national popular vote, then I believe they are not representing their constituents well if they do not pursue this proposal.

The question of how we elect a president is up for debate again, with advocates of a majoritarian philosophy having invented a new device for moving to a direct popular vote for the chief executive.
Our "majoritarian philosophy" is based on the idea that everyone's vote should count the same when electing a particular office and that the candidate with the most votes should win. For FairVote, that ideally would be a majority, yes, but that's a separate question that must be addressed through a constitutional amendment, if at all.

Note that some critics like to jump to say advocates of a national popular vote are against the U.S. Senate. That's demagoguery; it's a whole separate question, and always has been.

Rather than going through the labors of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College system with a national tally for president, which has failed every time it has been attempted, they have come up with a plan for bypassing the required two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and the ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Instead, the advocates propose that states with sufficient electoral votes - 270 of the 538 - to comprise an electoral majority enter into an interstate compact, pledging to give their votes to the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes. That action could allow the legislatures of as few as 11 states to change the whole system of electing a president.

Yes, the 11 largest population states do represent a majority of Americans, and the same majority that can elect the president under current law. A person could be elected president theoretically with a plurality of the vote in only those same states, but does that mean it's likely to happen? Of course not, as they include both strongly Republican states (like Texas and Georgia), strongly Democratic states (like Illinois, California and New York), fierce battlegrounds (like Florida and Ohio) and spectator states (most of them). Similarly, David Broder must know that if all these 11 states have entered into the agreement, most others will do so as well.
The proposal arrives with notable sponsorship. It was introduced this winter by John Anderson, the former congressman from Illinois and independent presidential candidate in 1980; former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, who sponsored a direct-election constitutional amendment a generation ago; Chellie Pingree, the president of Common Cause; and others drawn from both parties.

It has been endorsed by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and, earlier this month, by the editorial page of The New York Times, which called the Electoral College "an antidemocratic relic." Rob Richie, spokesman for the sponsoring organization, says bipartisan bills have been introduced in California and Illinois, with expressions of interest coming from many other states. He expects it to be debated in almost every legislature next year.

The reasons they give for making the change include the fact that in 2000, the Electoral College system - which gives all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of its popular vote, no matter how small the margin - made George Bush a winner despite Al Gore gaining more popular votes nationally, an offense to those who want majority rule.

This was a disappointing paragraph, as I stressed to Broder that the 2000 election probably makes our reform efforts more difficult rather than less. It made it that much harder to establish the natural bipartisan reform coalition that will ultimately back this proposal based on how poorly the current system serves the country.

I also stressed that the 2004 election could easily have cut the other way -- indeed if George Bush had carried the national popular vote by the same margin that Al Gore won in 2000, John Kerry almost certainly would be president. The current system does not help either party; rather, it hurts all Americans.

The sponsors also have noticed that presidential campaigns target battleground states while ignoring others in their advertising and campaign schedules. Thus Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin get more attention than New York or Texas. And since the number of battleground states has been shrinking, they say, more and more of the country is shut out of participation in the campaign.

So, they argue, let's move to a system where all votes count equally, because that will force the candidates to campaign and advertise everywhere.

That argument is a bit curious. It seems to assume that voters in New York and Texas are somehow excluded from awareness of everything that happens in the campaign - as if the newspapers and TV stations in their states were not covering it every day.

Like many reporters, Broder takes his role very seriously, and it's true that his columns and television appearances reach people in most states. But does that make everyone equal in presidential elections? What he neglects to mention is that the disparity in voter turnout between contested states and the great majority of the nation is rising rapidly. For example, voter turnout among eligible voters under 30 was fully 17% higher in the 10 closest battlegrounds than the rest of the nation in 2004. The 10 states with the sharpest decline in youth turnout since 1972 are all spectator states, including both Republican strongholds like Utah and Democratic strongholds like New York.
Meantime, it ignores the implications of a direct election plan for two of the fundamental characteristics of the American scheme of government, the federal system and the two-party system.

It is no accident that the Founders chose to elect the president by counting votes in the states, since they wanted to emphasize that this is a federal republic with sovereignty shared between the states and Washington.

The founders in fact didn't talk about counting votes in states, and indeed it took years for most states to move to holding elections rather than having state legislators choose. Rather, our founders determined that states should choose how to allocate electors. They also set up in the Constitution the means for states to pursue agreements with other states through interstate compacts. Our proposal is something I'm sure many, if not most, of our framers would have embraced in light of current conditions with our presidential election system.
Past efforts to abolish the Electoral College have foundered on the objections of small states, which worry that they would be ignored in the pursuit of giant voting blocs in big-population centers. Have their claims no merit?
The division in this nation on this issue is not between small and big states. It is between the dwindling number of states where meaningful contests occur and the rest of the nation. Nearly every small population state was completely ignored in recent presidential campaigns. The smallest states also have no partisan lean, with six clearly Democrat and six clearly Republican and only one (New Hampshire) a battleground that got any serious attention. A majority of small states received absolute no attention in the fall of 2004 -- not a single ad, not a single campaign visit, not a single resident polled by a campaign. How are their interests protected in any special way when this is the case?
As for the party system, past proposals for direct election have snagged on the question of allowing a simple plurality to win or requiring a runoff if no candidate receives more than, say, 40 percent of the vote.

Richie conceded in an interview that no runoff provision would be possible under this scheme unless all 50 states agreed -- an unlikely eventuality.

Richie argued that the temptation for a third or fourth-party candidate entering the race -- in order to tilt the outcome of the popular vote -- would be less than in the present system, where a minor candidate can hope to tip the result in particular closel contested states.

But that is speculation. The reality is we don't know how a Ralph Nader or a Ross Perot or a Pat Buchanan or a George Wallace would see his potential leverage in a direct-election system with no runoff requirement.

Everything about any change can be called "speculation" -- indeed, some think that evolution is "speculation." But we have literally thousands of elections held under plurality rules, both in the United States and other nations, and they tend toward two-party systems. There's a political science theory on this point called Duverger's law. Some backers of a national popular vote want a strong two-party system. Others want more opportunities for independents and third party candidates. But all agree that this is a separate question from replacing our current system with the merits of a national popular vote.
That is why a change of this scale requires careful consideration - something the amendment process provides and this mechanism is designed to circumvent. A change of this sort should not be created by 11 of the 50 state legislatures.
Absolutely. That's we should have 50 state legislatures giving the proposal careful consideration. Broder may question the seriousness of state legislators in debating and acting on what's best for their people in presidential elections, but our Constitution does not.