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The ‘National Popular Vote’ — Time At Last?

Neal Peirce / Jan 14 2012

For Release Sunday, January 15, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON — Newspapers, the airwaves and the blogosphere are already delivering 24-7 news and speculation focused on the 2012 presidential campaign.

But in the end, will we get the president the most Americans favor?

Don’t count on it. The hoary electoral college system lets states cast their electoral votes any way their legislatures determine. A minor electoral switch in one state can reverse the entire national election. There’s always a temptation to meddle.

Take Pennsylvania. For five elections running, Democratic candidates have triumphed there in “winner take all” style, capturing all of the state’s 20 electoral votes. Great for Democrats.

But the 2010 election gave Republicans control in Harrisburg. Gov. Tom Corbett endorsed a bill to split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by congressional district. The motive was transparent: to cut — roughly in half — the number of Pennsylvania electoral votes that President Obama could hope to win in the Keystone State.

That effort now seems shelved, but it reflects a bipartisan habit: When we can pull it off, we try to rejigger the election system to favor our side. A Supreme Court majority even did it in its infamous Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, stopping a recount that might have awarded the presidency to Al Gore (who actually led by more than 500,000 popular votes nationwide).

The Big Cure would seem obvious: institute a direct vote of the people, and scrap the electoral college, a jerry-rigged, last-minute concoction of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

For 68 years — since 1944, when the Gallup Poll first posed the question — overwhelming majorities of Americans have favored direct popular election of the president. But getting a constitutional amendment approved is so cumbersome that all attention has now turned to an ingenious, alternative approach.

It’s called the National Popular Vote initiative and its method is ingenious: Use a compact among the states to deliver all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes of citizens nationwide. The compact will go into effect when — but only when — states with votes constituting a majority of the electoral college (270 of the total of 538) formally approve it. The legality is clear: the Constitution gives state legislatures total power over casting electoral votes, plus the right to make interstate compacts.

So far the compact proposal has been approved by nine states which hold, cumulatively, 49 percent of the required 270 electoral votes. Included are Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, the District of Columbia — and California, in a big-time win for the movement this year.

There’s been a distinct Democratic cast to the group of states approving. Many Republican operatives, recalling the 2000 election, apparently feel the system somehow favors the Democrats. Plus, a significant number of GOP state legislators have been heavily wooed by the ultra-conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It opposes the National Popular Vote, charging the measure would “render minority groups voiceless and empower densely populated and ideologically homogenous regions as well as radical fringe groups.”

It’s a somewhat preposterous argument when one considers how “voiceless” many minority groups — from progressives in the Deep South to conservatives in the Northeast — may feel today. They know they’re so outnumbered in their states their votes will rarely if ever make a difference in choice of a president. And if everyone votes equally, how could direct popular vote for president really benefit “radical fringe groups?”

In fact, several states have reported significant Republican support for the National Popular Vote. Republicans voted 21-11 in favor, for example, when the New York Senate last June approved the proposed interstate compact. Republican supporters of a direct presidential vote have included, over the years, such stalwarts as Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

The reality is that a Republican could win the popular vote and lose the presidency just as easily as a Democrat. Each close election perpetuates a kind of insane electoral roulette which the National Popular Vote ( would resolve.

Plus, a direct vote would end the Flyover Phenomenon. Candidates see little point in visiting, or paying much attention to the two-thirds of states rated “safe” for one party or the other (for example Republican Texas, Democratic California). Following Labor Day in 2008, more than 98 percent of presidential campaign spending, plus all the candidates’ campaign visits, went to just 15 battlefield states (among them Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina) that represent barely a third of the U.S. population.

This means that special interest causes, like ethanol in Iowa or Cuban-Americans in Florida, get inordinate attention. And we virtually invite voter apathy, non-participation, in most of our states.

The favoritism would disappear in the first presidential election under the National Popular Vote. Its proposition is simple: Each American’s vote ought to be inviolate — and have equal impact.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. James A. Merritt
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    What is conveniently (deliberately) lost in the discussion of the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote proposal, is that the founders of this country never intended individual citizens to vote for either President or Senators. Individual citizens were only to vote for their respective members of the House of Representatives. Why? Because political legitimacy was to flow from the people in this new nation, and the founders wanted to balance the greater per-person power of the Senators and President with a watered-down, indirect political legitimacy, while at the same time making each elected official beholden to very different constituencies.

    In the House, the members were beholden to the people directly. In the Senate, they were originally beholden to the States. The President, with the greater power to act in a unilateral, kingly fashion, was also beholden to the States, through one level of indirection involving the Electoral College. Not only were the people not to vote directly for the President, they were to be TWO LEVELS of electoral legitimacy removed from his selection. It stands to reason that a President with great executive powers under the Constitution, who was also directly elected by millions (today, tens or hundreds of millions) of citizens, would be more able to ignore or disregard Congress and the courts, as a king might. The dilution of political legitimacy was, in part, a deliberate attempt to clip the wings of the Chief Executive, and prevent the eventual ascendance of an American Emperor. It was also an attempt to help focus each class of elected official on the issues and viewpoints of their “proper” constituencies: The People (House), The individual States (Senate), and the States taken as a group (President).

    The 17th Amendment “fixed” the Federal machine to work against that original plan. Ever since then, the powers and importance of the States have ebbed, against those of the Federal government: the originally-sought balance between the States and Washington has been lost — for the worse, I believe. Although moves were taken at local and State levels to involve the citizenry in the Presidential elections, almost as soon as the Constitution took effect, making it almost a hallowed American tradition to disregard this aspect of the original design, I still think, especially in view of how imperial the Presidency has become in modern times, that the initial impulse to separate the President from popular electoral legitimacy was a good one. If anything, we need to honor that impulse more, not less, in the present day. It is time to repeal the 17th Amendment, and to back away from attempts to give the Federal President the electoral legitimacy that is appropriate for — and can only guarantee that he or she becomes — a monarch.

  2. Posted January 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Google does not immediately find the accurate name of your first book about abolishing the Electoral College. I was about to say it is time to reissue it with current updates when I noticed that you and another writer did something like that in 2002. Can this be a topic whose time has finally come for a round of nationally noticed author interviews with Charlie Rose who is my favorite and all the others?

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Merritt is surely entitled to his view of the American electoral system as one depending on very limited powers, with Madison’s balance of powers theory carried to an extreme. It seems to me we have come along ways in two centuries, in which the “watered down, indirect political legitimacy” to which he refers is quite impractical to govern the affairs of a nation of some 300 million people in a turbulent world. In regard to the 17th Amendment, rather than repeal it we’d do better to expand the direct vote for senators to the office of President? Anything short of a direct vote means some votes are declared more important than others — and why should that be?

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    To clarify — My book on the electoral college — “The People’s President– The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative” — was originally published in 1968, publisher Simon & Schuster. It can be seen online: this is the link. Subsequently, with the late Larry D. Longley as a coauthor, a revision was published by the Yale University Press (1981).

  5. James A. Merritt
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Peirce seems to be arguing that, since the fire has consumed most of the house, we should just let the rest of it burn down — even energize the fire by pouring gasoline on it. Or perhaps that the original design of the government is and always was impractical to govern such a large and important nation as ours rather quickly became. I would rather put out the fire and restore the house, as best we can, to its original condition, because the fellows who designed and built it were masters of their craft — as several hundred years of experience continues to confirm — and I frankly don’t trust today’s architects to do a comparable job, much less a better one, in terms of additions or redesign. Mere restoration will prove hard enough.

    I also think that those old masters understood human nature and statecraft — even involving the governance of impressively large populations — better than most people I observe in public life today. I see no proof that the old design is inappropriate or impractical for today’s 300 millions, especially as it entails the deliberate hobbling and enfeebling of government: Many of the problems cited with American government today are actually carefully considered and well-debated FEATURES, with the end in mind to leave those millions free to handle their own affairs as they best see fit. Ironically, much of the “turbulence” in our world is due to the influence or intervention of our government in far-flung parts of the globe, in blatant disregard of constitutional limitations, not to mention the explicit advice of the people who wrote that document.

    Mr. Peirce argues for fairness, that every citizen’s vote should count as much as anyone else’s. I agree with this, to the extent that we embrace democracy. But I also agree with the founders, who deliberately did not design a pure democracy, out of fears of an eventual tyranny of the majority, and the premature end of our great experiment. Democracy is not and never was the goal. It is only a means to an end: securing the liberty of the American people to live their lives and conduct their affairs as they see fit. The people who wrote the Constitution attempted to harness democracy so that the nation could enjoy its benefits, without being vulnerable to its very real dangers. Attempts to expand our system toward pure democracy have had a very checkered history of effectiveness. In particular, direct election of Senators has corresponded to aggrandizement of the Federal government, at the expense of the States. In consequence, the Federal government now has its fingers in hundreds of millions of pies, directly affecting people’s lives on a daily basis. This is, ironically, the best argument I have seen in favor of the popular election of the President: It makes sense to have the power of direct election over those who directly “rule” over you. The founders thought so, too, but expected that the most visible and intrusive levels of government in a citizen’s life would be local and State, so that direct election would not be necessary for most Federal offices. Today, there is no doubt that the situation has diverged far from their vision. But is the proper response to give in to inevitable Federal dominance, and the complete obsolescence of the States, or to cut the Federal government’s role and size back to levels that are more in keeping with the original checks-and-balances design? That’s really the question here: Empire or Republic? If we switch to direct election of the President, I think we take a big step down the road toward rendering Federalism irrelevant, just as we did when we passed the 17th Amendment. From what I have read in history and seen in life, I don’t think too many good things await us at the end of that road. Big, central governments can do a great many impressive things. But mostly, history shows, those impressive things have been HORRIBLE in nature, including worldwide wars and the increase in pain and duration of economic and political collapses that are the inevitable consequences of big-government policies.

    The original role of the President was as ringmaster of the mostly autonomous States and occasional commander-in-chief of the military. Today, the US President is thought of by many as being the most powerful person in the world, by virtue of the fact that the US is the “sole remaining superpower” after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which went down the path of false glory we are now on, and should have served as an object lesson for us). As much as some might wish differently, our position, the size and scope of our government-on-steriods, and the President’s perceived power, are all unsustainable. I think we would be wise to think carefully about how we can cut back government so that the President resumes the originally intended role, and so that individual US citizens have less motivation to worry so much about who is in the office, any more than we now care about who is Secretary General of the United Nations. George Washington set the proper tone of Presidential humility when he stepped down, voluntarily giving up power after two terms in office. FDR ushered in the era of America as superpower by breaking Washington’s custom and holding onto the “most powerful office in the world” through multiple terms, until his dying day. I think Washington had it right, but the generations alive today have been influenced more by FDR’s example — to our detriment, in my opinion. Following George Washington’s lead will not be easy, but I think it will be necessary, if the US government is to resume its proper function of securing our liberties, and if it is to survive long into the future. We need to concern ourselves with how to restore the government we were supposed to have and deserve to have, and I can’t agree that subverting carefully designed checks and balances by direct election can do anything but push us ever closer to being, in fact, the doomed-to-fall Empire that many critics of the US allege we are already. I say, let’s save what remains of the house, do our best to truly understand its original design, and faithfully rebuild according to that plan.

  6. Trevor Peirce
    Posted January 16, 2012 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Impressive, timely column and follow up discussion over a democracy versus a constitutional republic. This is a topic more Americans ought to be well versed in. A century ago the central bankers and issuance of money had a place in routine conversations on politics. For the first time since 1913 (at the time of the surreptitious passage of the Federal Reserve Act) the central bank and favoritism to the connected is a topic in a presidential campaign.

  7. Joel Laramee
    Posted January 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate James Merritt’s eloquent argument for a return to a model of government that had decentralization built into it. But there is nothing truly “sacred” about any written form of government, and the fact is, like it or not, the states *are* obsolete.

    I like what Ian Scott said, in his column on 12/17/11 ( “…metropolitan regions are the geography of the economy but not the geography of government.” In other words: the states are obsolete and are impediments to regional development, not aids to it.

    What to do? I’m no expert on government, but it seems that the regions are stuck between obsolete (and yet quite expensive) state governments that have zero incentive to dismantle themselves, and a national government that is overly centralized and insolvent. Maybe Neal is right, and the answer is to continue to strengthen the national government at the expense of the the states. But what about the U.S. Senate? A vestige of the archaic system, that wields enormous power at the national level.

  8. John Howell
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Ingenious? Indeed it is, but so are many methods that have been used to subvert the Constitution. The white primary was ingenious. The poll tax was ingenious, as were literacy tests and the grandfather clause. All were subversions of the right to vote, and all were ingenious. The fact that something is ingenious does not make it right. Look folks: if we want to change our method for electing a president, let’s do it by the established means provided by Article V of the Constitution. Amend it.

  9. James A. Merritt
    Posted March 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    @Joel Laramee: You hit the nail on the head. The direct presidential election movement seems to be a symptom of the growing irrelevance of the States and Federalism. @John Howell: So did you, in your call to avoid end-runs around the Constitution and simply amend it if it needs changing.

    A key question is, should we simply abandon the idea of States altogether, or try to reassert their relevancy? If we abandon the States — and so, Federalism — what will replace them? Will we move on with an overarching Federal government, or will we, perhaps, create new geographic States that are more in keeping with long-established City regions, so that we can preserve and inherit the blessings and protection of the nation’s original Federal design? I am more and more leaning toward the latter.

    In my own, large State of California, we struggle with regional tensions. I live in Central California. Our “breadbasket” region is caught in the middle of issues between North and South. I have often thought that our State ought to be split into three, because one State government (and a dysfunctional one, at that) definitely does not begin to “fit all” who live within the State’s borders.

    In wondering, several years ago, where best to “draw the lines” between any new States created out of California, I encountered this online experiment, which I think would be of interest to those who like the idea of autonomous city regions:

    The website proprietor sought to get contributors to identify themselves by town (zip code) and by regional city of affinity. He then had software at the website draw maps of the US that illustrated the political/cultural/economic reach of various cities. As a fan of Jane Jacobs’ “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” I was fascinated by this project. Started in the mid-2000’s, It seems to be running at a slow simmer on the back burner at the moment, but the website and maps are still available, and you can still participate in the survey.

    Based on my own observations and feelings, as well as the data provided by the CommonCensus, maps, I would probably divide California into 3 smaller States, with San Francisco being the economic capital of Northern California, San Jose and Fresno being c0-economic-capitals of Central California (which would extend as far South as San Luis Obispo or Santa Maria), and Los Angeles and San Diego being the economic capitals of Southern California. I don’t have much of an opinion, as to whether those should be the political capitals as well. Sacramento is already established, for example, and I’d be happy for Northern California to take it. I don’t mean to threadjack the topic, but it seems to me that direct election of the President is like the root canal that, in most cases, prepares for a tooth extraction; if Federalism is the tooth of my analogy, than I would rather try to save the tooth than take steps that will lead, inevitably, to discarding it.

    Take a look at the CommonCensus map, and see whether a new clutch of States might better fit the city-region realities. If all we really need to do is adjust the State borders to make the Federal design work better, I’d rather have that than move to the strong central government that the founders avoided and feared.