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The National Popular Vote


Hendrik Hertzberg notes that a 10th state has signed on to the National Popular Vote initiative:

On Tuesday, the State of New York took a baby step—or maybe a giant leap!—toward making the United States of America something more closely resembling a modern democracy: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill joining up the Empire State to the National Popular Vote (N.P.V.) interstate compact.

As I’ve explained many times (fifty-one, to be exact), N.P.V. is a way to elect our Presidents the way we elect our governors, our mayors, our senators and representatives, our state legislators, and everybody else: by totting up the voters’ votes—all of them—and awarding the job to whichever candidate gets the largest number. And it does this without changing a word of the Constitution.

Impossible, you say? No. Quite possible—even probable—and in time for 2020, if not for 2016.

As Hertzberg says, it’s instructive that while all 50 states have an independent executive and for better or worse 49 states have also chosen to copy the bicameralism of Congress, none has copied the electoral college. And no other liberal democracy uses it either. This makes sense, since given modern democratic norms it’s utterly indefensible. It was premised on two key assumptions (nonpartisan elections and the need to substantially filter popular

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control over representatives) that are are not only anachronistic in 2014 but we so immediately untenable it’s very likely that a constitutional convention meeting in 1802 would have chosen popular vote to elect the president. The electoral college has many obviously terrible elements — the potential to elect a non-winner in the popular vote contrary to basic democratic principles, rendering major states like New York, California and Texas irrelevant to presidential elections — without any serious corresponding benefits. Nobody uses it anywhere else because there’s no case for keeping it other than pure inertia.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going anywhere. Silver is probably right about this:

Here’s the problem: All the states to have joined so far are very blue. Until some purple states and red states sign on, the compact has little in the way of territory to conquer.

As the chart below indicates, the relationship between whether a state has joined the compact and how it voted in 2012 is nearly 1-to-1. The seven states where President Obama won by the widest margins, along with D.C., have joined. So have three others — New Jersey, Illinois and Washington — where Obama won by at least 15 percentage points. But none below that threshold have done so.

To succeed, NPV needs support from the elites of both parties, and as of now it doesn’t have it. While as Silver says it’s not obvious that having a presidential election system that actually meets contemporary democratic standards structurally benefits either party (unlike, say, D.C. statehood) Republicans right now seem to see the NPV as an attack on the legitimacy of the Bush presidency. Probably the only way to create bipartisan action to work around or abolish the electoral college would be if both parties get screwed by the EC in successive elections. 150,000 more votes for John Kerry in Ohio in 2004 and we might have been rid of the thing, but as of now we’re probably stuck with it for a while more.

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