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National Popular Vote plan is hardly a threat to democracy

What’s so bad about letting the one who gets the most votes win an election?

I can't figure out what's wrong with a system that allows a candidate to seek votes wherever the voters are, as opposed to the current system, which incentivizes a candidate to concentrate on wooing votes only in a relative few "swing states."
REUTERS/Derek Hauck

In an op-ed in the Strib’s Sunday opinion section, Annette Meeks, CEO of the righty Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, argued that the so-called National Popular Vote plan would be a danger to something deeply valuable about the current U.S. system of choosing presidents, but I can’t quite say what she thinks the danger is.

As she presents it, the problem seems to be this: If all a presidential candidate had to do to get elected was to get the most votes, it would incentivize the campaigns to campaign where the most voters are. I’ve heard this argument several times but I can’t figure out what’s wrong with a system that allows a candidate to seek votes wherever the voters are, as opposed to the current system, which incentivizes a candidate to concentrate on wooing votes only in a relative few “swing states.”

Meeks is a friend of mine, and I hope she will still be. But her argument is built on faulty logic, ancestor worship and historical and factual error and perhaps a dash of partisanship, although I’m confused about the partisan angle. Because of my obsession with the history of the U.S. system of government, and because I am way-less-than worshipful toward the Electoral College system, I’m subjecting Meeks op-ed to a minor “fisking.”

I’ve written before about the plan that inspired Meeks’ piece. I favor it mildly, and don’t know how far it will get. It’s called National Popular Vote (NPV) by its promoters, and would take effect when (and not until) enough states have adopted state laws binding them to give their electoral votes to whichever presidential ticket gets the most votes nationwide. “Enough” means states with enough combined electoral votes (the magic number is 270)  to guarantee that that ticket would win the election.

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Nine states (plus the District of Columbia) with a combined 136 electoral votes, have passed laws committing to this plan. (That’s just more than halfway to 270.) 

Invoking the Framers?

Minnesota has not adopted the law, although it came to a vote in the House in the last legislative session. Meeks says that the NPV lobbyists have targeted Minnesota in the current session, and I’m told it is likely to come to a vote again. Meeks alluded to “paid lobbyists” working for the law and said that the NPV is supported by a “millionaire activist.” Meeks doesn’t explicitly say there’s anything wrong with “paid lobbyists” or “millionaire activists.” But if she is ready to join a coalition to reduce the impact of lobbyists and millionaires, I am with her, as would be a lot of allies who don’t agree with everything Freedom Foundation stands for. But OK — politics, strange bedfellows.

In explaining the NPV plan, Meeks leaves out one crucial fact. She wrote that if Minnesota passes the bill: “It would dictate that Minnesota’s 10 presidential electors be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote for president, rather than to the candidate who received the highest number of votes from Minnesotans.” That would be crazy if it wasn’t part of a compact among all the signatory states. The compact has no effect unless and until the states in the compact have enough electoral votes to guarantee that the national popular vote winner would become president. Meeks uses the word “compact,” but never makes clear that it takes effect only in those circumstances. But let’s assume she meant to make that clear. What bothers her about the idea?

The system we have is working “pretty good,” Meeks suggests. Only four times out of 57 presidential elections has someone become president after finishing second on the popular vote, most recently in the Bush-Gore election of 2000. Each of the cases led to legitimacy problems for the loser/winner who took office. But, what the heck, a system that allowed the popular vote winner to win the presidency just four times amounts to “a pretty good track record for the Electoral College system,”  Meeks wrote. Why switch to a system that would reduce the chance to zero?

The Framers were against it, she says, quoting Constitutional Convention delegate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina who was concerned that the “most populous States, by combining in favor of the same individual, will be able to carry their points.”

Omigod. The Framers were never anywhere near empowering the national electorate to choose a president. The Framers didn’t even empower the voters to directly elect their senators, who were to be chosen by the state legislatures. But when Pinckney made the remark quoted, he was arguing in favor of having the president chosen by Congress! As far as the most populous being able to “carry their points,” what the heck? Under the current system, the most populous 11 states control 270 electoral votes. Under the existing system, if they could “combine in favor of the same individual,” they could elect him or her under the current system without any support from the smaller 39 states (plus D.C.)

A form of tyranny?

It would be a form of federal tyranny, Meeks says. At least I guess that’s what she meant when she wrote: “This compact seeks to destroy the genius of the existing electoral process and federalize our presidential election.” What’s “federalize” doing in there, other than as a word that makes conservatives cringe? This compact idea seems more of a rebellion against federalism than an extension of “federalization,” and it would be enacted by state, not federal, statutes.

Perhaps Meeks’ key argument, and it’s the one I hear most often from opponents of the NPV idea, is that under NPV candidates would have an incentive to focus their campaigns on big population areas. That’s almost certainly correct, and maybe it’s troubling. But let’s look that one square in the face.

Although Meeks makes the strange, untrue statement that the existing system “has made Minnesota a player in nearly every presidential election,” that opposite is true. I’ve lived here only since 1977, and I do recall every once in an occasional quadrennium somebody writing a story that some Republican strategist thought it might be possible to put Minnesota into play. But it never pans out. Minnesota is never on the list of the final eight or 10 swing states that get all the late TV advertising and big-buck campaign events.

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Iowa, yes. If you want to see what having your local TV advertising taken over by presidential campaign ads looks like, just drive far enough south to pick up the stations that reach Iowans. Wisconsin, sometimes. Minnesota? We’re lucky to get a token visit by a candidate raising money.

It’s about the swing states

That’s the thing about the current system. I’m sure Meeks knows this. The three biggest population states — California, Texas and New York — get taken for granted because they are so reliably red or blue. The smallest states — Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware, both Dakotas — get ignored, not just because they are small but mostly because they don’t swing. Minnesota, which is near the middle of the pack in population, gets ignored.  It’s all about “swing states,” and in recent cycles it’s mostly Florida (the fourth biggest) and Ohio (seventh) that determine the outcome of the election. What sense does that make? It makes “swing state sense.” I don’t much care about living in a state that gets a lot of 30-second attack ads or candidate fly-throughs.

So the argument is that under NPV, the candidates would try to get the most votes, wherever they can find them. I just can’t get what’s less democratic about that than about trying to get the most votes in Florida and Ohio.

Lastly, I assume there is something partisan going on, although Meeks make no direct partisan argument. In the last vote on the bill in the Minnesota House, the bill got support from members of both parties, but more from Democrats. And I note that the nine states (plus D.C.) that have adopted NPV so far are all blue states.