Group gains against Electoral College

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DENVER | A movement to bypass the Electoral College and elect the president based on the popular vote is gaining steam, racking up almost one-fifth of the support needed to trigger the plan.

National Popular Vote, a California-based group formed in 2006, has won commitments from four states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. Those four states — Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii — have 50 electoral votes among them.

The goal is for states with a total of 270 electoral votes to enter into a compact in which they agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote.

Since presidential candidates need 270 electoral votes for victory, such a compact would ensure that the candidate earning the most votes nationwide would win the election, and the Electoral College would be made irrelevant. Campaigning would become radically different. The most obvious change is that there would be no advantage to getting 51 percent in a given state, thus no “battleground states.”

The new system wouldn’t kick in until the target is reached, said John Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote and the designer of the plan.

“We have 20 percent of the electoral votes we need,” said Mr. Koza. “The whole idea of the bill is that no state can do this alone. It only goes into effect when we have 270 electoral votes.”

At this rate, however, the system could be implemented in time for the 2016 presidential race. Nearly every state has introduced National Popular Vote legislation this year, and seven have passed bills in one chamber.

The next state to join the compact could be Colorado. In 2007 and 2008, the state Senate there passed the legislation, but not the House. In March, however, the House passed a popular-vote bill and sent it to the Senate, which has changed little since last year.

Proponents argue that the National Popular Vote has numerous advantages over the current system. All but two states now award their electoral votes based on a winner-take-all approach, which creates the chance that the winner of the Electoral College vote could be the loser of the popular vote.

It has happened three times in U.S. history, most recently in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the election by gaining more electoral votes than his opponent, Democrat Al Gore. In 2004, it almost happened again. If 60,000 votes in Ohio had shifted from Mr. Bush to Democrat John Kerry, Mr. Kerry would have won the electoral vote despite trailing by 3.5 million votes.

“The winner-take-all system isn’t only undemocratic, it’s also dysfunctional,” said Colorado state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Democrat who sponsored the Colorado legislation.

Those recent squeaker elections may explain the push for a system tied more closely to the popular vote. Advocates of the National Popular Vote also insist that the legislation is bipartisan and wouldn’t favor either political party in the presidential contest. The group’s advisory board includes a handful of former Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Jake Garn of Utah and Rep. Tom Campbell of California.

However, the movement has garnered far more supporters among Democrats than Republicans. In Hawaii, for example, the legislation passed in 2008 only after both Democrat-controlled chambers overrode the veto of Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican.

Republicans say Democrats are using the proposal to avenge their loss in the 2000 presidential race.

“For Democrats, it’s a reaction to wanting to poke George W. Bush in the eye,” said Colorado state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, a Republican who opposes the popular-vote legislation. “After the 2000 vote, Democrats seemed to react with ‘popular vote good, Electoral College bad,’ and Republicans, being more traditionalists, have responded with ‘Electoral College good, popular vote bad.’ ”

Republicans also argue that the plan would favor large states and major metropolitan areas, where candidates are able to reach more voters with their advertising dollars. Since most big cities tilt leftward, the system would be more likely to pull candidates to the liberal end of the spectrum, they say.

Under the current system, say Democrats, candidates often end up concentrating their resources on the handful of close “battleground” states, which means that most voters receive little of the candidates’ attention.

In the 2008 election, said Mr. Koza, two-thirds of the campaign dollars were spent in six states, and 90 percent was spent in 15 states.

“When you’re in a non-battleground state, which is two-thirds of the states, you tend to get ignored,” Mr. Koza said. “People are figuring out that in most states, they don’t count. If anything, this presidential election reminded them that they don’t count.”

He predicted that a popular-vote system would force candidates to run national campaigns in which their focus is spread evenly through all 50 states. Opponents say that it’s more likely the campaigns would end up concentrating on places where the voters are, such as Los Angeles and New York City, and Republicans would take their chances with swing states in that case.

“Those swing states can actually be quite diverse,” Mr. Mitchell said. “It’s a slam-dunk that the 10 battleground states are more representative of the broad national interest than the 10 biggest metropolitan areas.”

Despite that argument, such current battleground states as Michigan and Colorado have had the measure go at least as far as approval by one chamber during a legislative session.

“That shows this isn’t kryptonite in battleground states, either,” Mr. Koza said. “This thing seems to have support all over the country.”

National Popular Vote was started by Mr. Koza, a self-professed elections geek who published an Electoral College board game in 1966. He went on to serve as founder and chairman of Scientific Games, where he co-invented the rub-off lottery ticket.

He and Barry Fadeem, NPV’s president and an attorney based in Lafayette, Calif., got their feet wet in legislative politics by lobbying on behalf of state-run lotteries. Mr. Koza now teaches courses in medicine and engineering at Stanford University as a consulting professor.

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