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Will Minnesota join compact to guarantee popular-vote winner becomes president?

Gov. Jerry Brown
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Gov. Jerry Brown

The California Legislature has passed, and Monday Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a law that adds America’s most populous state to the list of states that are trying to form a compact to guarantee that the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationally will become president.

Minnesota has not joined the list, but the idea has substantial bipartisan and leadership support here.

If you haven’t heard about this movement, organized by an outfit called National Popular Vote, here’s how it works. The model legislation, which has now been adopted by eight states (plus the District of Columbia), pledges each state  to award its electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. But the law doesn’t take effect until enough states have passed the bill to guarantee that the popular vote winner at least 270 electoral votes, which equals an electoral vote majority and guarantees election of that ticket.

Personally, I favor the idea. Four times in U.S. history, a president has been “elected” even though his ticket finished second in the popular vote. The most recent was George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000. But there have been many close calls where a change of the outcome in one close state would have changed the national result to a popular vote loser winning in the Electoral College. The most recent of those was in 2004, when a shift of just 60,000 votes would have swung the state — and the election — to Democratic nominee John Kerry, even though Bush won the national popular by a margin of more than three million (50.74 percent to 48.27 percent).

John Koza, head of National Popular Vote, also argues that the combination of the electoral vote system and especially the winner-take-all system under which 48 of the 50 states award all of their electoral votes to the statewide winner distorts presidential campaigns (which have an incentive to ignore more of the states, which they deem to be reliably red or blue) and focus all their efforts on small number of “swing” or “battleground” states. Even worse — and this might be the most substantive all the arguments — Electoral College considerations give those battleground states special influence in the thinking and in the policies of presidents and presidential wannabes.

Because of the way the trigger mechanism of the compact is set up, California (55 electoral votes) is the biggest “get” of all. Monday’s signing runs the total of electoral votes of states that have adopted the law up to 132, which is 49 percent of the way to the magic number of 270.

View in Minnesota
Of course, if being something other than a battleground in presidential election is one key to how a state may feel about the compact, Minnesota — which has gone blue in all presidential elections since 1976 — is a likely suspect.

The law has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature for several sessions. The current lead sponsor is Repub state Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington (chair of Education Finance) and co-sponsor is DFL Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park. There are plenty of other supports, of both parties, including Speaker Kurt Zellers. It was voted out of the House Elections Committee with bipartisan support.

It also has bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate and Laura Brod, a former Minnesota republican state representative from New Prague and a paid strategic consultant to National Popular Vote, said she expected a Senate committee vote in 2012 and she predicts it will to a vote on the floor of both houses as well.

But despite many indications that the National Popular Vote compact idea has bipartisan appeal — and it had visible support by some members of the Republican National Committee — opponents of the idea within the RNC engineered a policy vote and it was overwhelmingly stomped. One might even say it was unanimously stomped, except that one RNC member voted “present” and many were absent.

Said Koza: “That was certainly not helpful, and it makes it harder to get rank and file support from Republicans, but It’s not like the Kremlin issuing an order.”

Safe blue states
Come to think of it, there’s apparently something about the compact that Dems find more attractive than Repubs. The list of states that have adopted the law comes entirely the list of safe blue states.

Brod attributed the RNC vote to the idea that the committee is made up of an old guard “that thinks they know to win elections and they know how to run them based on the status quo system.”

In working for the law, Brod said, Republicans did seem slower to embrace the idea, but she said it is now happening. In the bright red state of South Carolina, there are 41 sponsors of the bill — all Republicans.

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Comments (13)

It's an interesting turn of events, and I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Republicans to embrace the idea.

The whole rationale of the electoral college is to minimize as much as possible the popular vote – this is a republic, after all, and the founders currently being worshiped by Tea Party members did not intend for it to be a direct democracy. For many years, the more populous, urban states leaned to the Democratic side, so it would be natural for the Democratic Party to favor an increase in the influence of the popular vote, but while most of the country now lives in areas that are “urban” in terms of population density and government services provided, a sizable portion of that “urban” population is actually suburban, and the suburbs increasingly swing to the Republican side of the ledger.

It made political sense for Republicans to oppose the popular vote for president when more of the population was likely to vote for a Democrat, but the rise of suburban population is concurrent with the rise in faux-conservative ideology, á la Michele Bachmann, making the electoral college as a means of side-tracking the popular vote less attractive to Republicans than it might have been in earlier decades. The increasing influence of groups like ALEC, not to mention corporations as “people” via the Roberts court, may well give pause to at least some Democrats who in earlier years might have been enthused about the prospect of the popular vote having more influence on the outcome of a presidential race.

In other words, while I still think it’s a good idea, it’s not an unmixed blessing.

"The most recent of those was in 2004, when a shift of just 60,000 votes would have swung the state"

I don't know why, but I've always been bugged by this last bit of John Kerry spin. While the statement is factually true - it is highly misleading.

Bush won Ohio by 118,601 votes - or 50.8% to 48.7% - this margin is nearly identical to his national level of support - 50.7% to 48.2%.

For comparison look at the last Governor's race - which is described as as Emmer coming up about 9000 votes short (8749 was the actual difference, or 43.7% to 43.2%). Nobody says, 'but for a shift in 4500 votes...'

Dayton won by about 9000 votes, not 4500 vote shifts. Bush won by 118,000 votes, not 60,000 vote shifts.

Not sure why this change would eliminate the problem of candidates focusing on certain swing states. Changing to electoral votes based on popular vote would cause candidates to focus almost solely on larger states. Thus, there would still be swing states for candidates to focus on but those states would now be those with the greatest population. Smaller states would become non-players. For example, North Dakota has 0.5% of the electoral votes but its population in the 2000 census was 0.22% of US. If representative government is good enough for making our laws [although recent work in D.C. might challenge that idea], then it should also work for selecting our president.

And what if the national vote is so close that a recount is necessary?

The recount in just one state, Florida, in 2004 was an ugly mess. Can you imagine doing that in all the states, D.C., territories, etc.?

This article is very one-sided. Sounds like Eric did not interview even one opponent.

Even if we agree that there are problems in our current system, there are enormous potential problems with the National Popular Vote proposal that are almost never analyzed or discussed.
One example: What if the agreement is enacted but a state later decides it doesn't want to follow the interstate agreement after all? That is, what if a state decides to withdraw from the agreement because the political leadership don't like the result under the compact? How would it be enforced? Only the Supreme Court would have jurisdiction--which means it could be months or years before an election is settled. Also, since this is a matter of contract law, would the S.Ct. force a state to follow through?

NPV needs much more scrutiny than it has received so far. There is a lot of money behind the effort. Who is funding it and why? I hope that journalists will be the skeptics the public needs them to be.

#4 - If it would present anothe opportunity to hear Mark Elias talk about the universe, I'd be all for it!

I would have appreciated a little more of the other side in this article. I was in the House Elections Committee in the last legislature when it passed with bipartisan support, and was fairly shocked. It seems like an end-run around the electoral college, which is in our constitution. Supporters of NPV say that so-called "flyover states" (low elec. college votes) would become more important- but that's not so since larger states will always have more sway, using population or electoral college numbers, and the candidates will still focus on these states. In 1984 we were the only blue state in the entire union (Mondale was our home-town boy). Why give all our votes to Reagan- he won anyway. Why shouldn't MN have its own voice? If a candidate wins in MN it shows who MN voted for; I don't want people in OH & CA determining where our electoral college votes go. This is not to say that election reform and voting processes shouldn't be studied & debated, but I don't think I like NPV.

To Tim W.: By Florida I assume you meant Bush and Gore. That was the 2000 election. How time flies!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_v._Gore

You might recall that in 2000 Chicago mayot Richard Dailey, Jr. came down to Floriduhhh! to help in the vote counting. This resulted in a lot of endless snarky comments because of the past history of "vote counting" in Chicago, especially under the senior Richard Dailey.

Here is the problem with a national popular vote. Voting laws are a local or state mandate so long as there is not blatent discrimination (IE a poll tax or "knowlege test" with a subjective judgement of the answers).

A set of national voting laws would be very complex and cumbersome. An example might be "distance to the polls". A one mile radius might be too many people in the cities but some parts of MN have an extremely low population density (IE: The BWCA permanent residents). Some states let prisoners in prison vote! I'm sure Oak Park Heights, MN would not like that being the home to both Stillwater and Oak Park Heights state prisons.

As it stands now election officials are political appointees. Democrats would tend to appoint Democrats and Republican would tend to appoint Republicans.

Like duhh! If a certain party is strong in either state there could be a strong "gin up the vote" effort. They might win the vote in that state (a solid blue or red state) but the electoral college limits this to that state.

The electoral college provides a "firewall" against voter fraud by saying that the winner gets the state weather they won by a inch or a mile. Without the electoral college there would be a benefit in ginning up as many votes as possible be it by hook or crook.

You might think that this automatically benefits Democrats but not necessarily. If a "dems are using voter fraud" idea takes hold it might help Republicans (note the very strong MN citizen support for ID at polls). As to the poor and low income, these groups tend to be least accepting of "gay activism". If we wanted to gin up repub votes work on the idea that the "gay activists" have taken over the Democratic party. (Cite the words and actions of Dr. Alfred Kinsey).

It would get nasty on both sides if we had a national popular vote. A recount would be a total nightmare.

California is the largest state. I believe that we get an electoral college vote for every Senator and representative that a state has. I believe that the Dakotas each have only one rep but two senators. The original logic of two senators per state was to keep the "hinterlands" from feeling disenfranchised.

I think Rep. Liebling's arguments are strong. How would the law be enforced? What assurance would any of the electoral college voters have that all the other voters have stuck to the deal?

Could national voting laws possibly be more cumbersome than the hodgepodge of state and local laws we have now? Much of the suspicions of fraud come from not knowing procedures. No wonder so many of us think elections are frequently stolen.

I understand the concerns about carrying out a national recount, but think of how different 2000 would have been if we didn't have to care about 300 votes in Florida. A popular vote would have given us a very close but still clear result. Other countries manage national popular votes, so why not us? We're a bigger country so there are more votes to count, but we also have more people to do the counting, so I can't see why that's an obstacle.

Keep in mind the electoral college had little to do with the practicality of counting votes, and much to do with the assumption the people would understand their local affairs, but know nothing of national politics or national politics. Turned out we knew more about our presidents than about our mayors. We've been left with a system where the 10-12 largest states can decide the election by themselves if they vote the same way. The only way small states count, even with disproportionate representation, is if those states are swing states and the electoral college is close. Win California by one vote, and pick up over a tenth of all electoral votes --- that's representative?

Just as a matter of principle, the president represents all Americans, so we should all get the same vote. One citizen, one vote, majority wins.

Other countries manage national popular votes, so why not us?

Some do, some don't. A lot of countries use proportional representation in parliamentary elections.

I think the problem is with the presidency itself. Instead of a chief executive that combines the functions of both a chief of state, and a chief of government, it might be better to separate the two. Make the presidency an honorary post, reduce the senate to an advisory body only, and let the speaker of the house run the country. The result might be bad government, but at least it would be effective government.

I believe some states award electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote. This might be easier to pass nationally than a popular-vote law that does away with the electoral college.

In 2000, Bush had the "help" in Florida of a corrupt secretary of state who used various ruses to deprive many citizens of their right to vote - such as refusing to allow any voter with a name the same as (or even close to) that of a convicted felon. She was rewarded with enough Party help to get her elected to Congress. The recount should have covered the entire state, but unfortunately did not. John Bolton rushed to Florida, burst into the counting room and shouted, "I'm from the Republican Party and I'm here to stop the recount," which helped put the decision into the hands of the Roberts court.

In 2004, states like Ohio used the electronic voting machines built by Diebold (whose president said he would do anything to help Bush get re-elected). On election day, "repairmen" showed up at precincts to "fix" machines they said had problems ... and "fixed" them to record a vote for Bush no matter which name voters touched on the screen. Late that night, the exit poll numbers showing Gore as the winner changed mysteriously at about one a.m. to match the election results later announced.

Both these elections were stolen, which changed our history for the very, very worse.