A few weeks ago a gentlemen strolled into my office at the New York State Legislature, carrying what I thought was typical lobbying information; “we would like money for this…” or, “your member should support that….” This gentleman, however, was different. This gentleman had in his possession information opposing the movement to elect the President by a national popular vote.
Naturally this sparked my interest and he and I engaged in a spirited debate about the tenants of democracy and the issues with the proposal. After he departed my office I was left with only one feeling: he cannot be serious. So I inquired for more information from his group on the subject, and the memorandum he supplied me with is the subject of the following piece.
According to the Federal Elections Commission, in 2008 roughly 57% of the citizens of the United States turned out to vote in the Presidential election[i], which for a country which prides itself on being a beacon of is not exactly an impressive statistic. Even more damning; a report published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in the year 2000 showed that the United States ranked 132 out of 172 countries in voter turnout, with an average of 48.3 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in elections between 1945 and 2000.[ii]
Now if those statistics don’t highlight voter engagement and participation I don’t know what does.
The memorandum distributed by this gentleman’s from the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) is so incredibly flawed I am amazed it made it through the editing process and was actually distributed.
Firstly, the position advocated by the CCP headlines its argument with the following:
“The National Popular Vote Plan would jettison a nearly 220 year old system for electing our nations President. In doing so, it would reject one of the many carefully-crafted checks on majority rule designed by the Founding Fathers to safeguard minority rights.”[iii]
After finishing chewing on whatever you had to to finally finish reading that, further analysis highlights a serious ideological flaw in this position. Firstly, defending a 220 year old system that is cloaked in antiquity and mired in controversy by saying it defends the minority is laughable. I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around how a system that awards electoral votes to a candidate based on which party’s candidate wins in that state defends the minority.
If the democrats control the legislative majority in a state such as New York (as they do), then by nature the majority is in control; which under the principles of majority rule, democracy and utilitarianism is fair, although it sucks to be in the minority. Thusly when it comes time to elect the President, there will more likely than not be a democratic majority, thereby awarding the electoral votes from the state of New York to the democratic candidate, effectively nullifying the votes of those New Yorkers who voted for non-establishment candidates or for the republican candidate. Granted there exists the possibility of the minority candidate winning, but the amount of time, money, and resources it would take to reverse the voting trend in a state such as New York is simply not feasible under the current electoral system.
Another point brought up in this memorandum is that the Electoral College system creates an environment in which
“…candidates must be able to appeal to multiple constituencies, building broad coalitions based on policies that address the needs and interests of Americans across the country. The plan would eliminate the need for candidates to build these coalitions in support of their candidacies, allowing them instead to focus on issues that appeal to and motivate their partisan base. The requirement that candidates appeal to voters across the country and not just a handful of populous areas is an important check on the power of a narrowly-focused majority to trample the rights of the minority. The NPV scheme would eliminate this important check.”[iv]
The “check” that is addressed above has already been eliminated. Candidates already spend their time appealing to their bases first, energizing them so they have a system of support to fall back on when they inevitably make a mistake. Candidates, under the current system do not address the needs of citizens across the country. They address the needs of citizens in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, largely ignoring states in which their party has the majority, as victory is all but assured there.
Why would Mitt Romney spend his time and money running campaign commercials in New York or California? Surely you will see the die hard Romney supporters with their bumper stickers and their lawn signs, but New York will certainly receive no where near as much attention as states where the voting base can swing either way. And that, effectively, disenfranchises the “casual” voter, who if their vote actually counted in a state in which their party allegiance is in the minority, would go out and vote. But under the current system, why would they even bother? If you want to talk about protecting the minority: let their voice be heard. Let their vote be counted, and applied to their candidate, so that they can actually make a difference.
Under the current system, the popular vote is nothing more than a cute statistic for cable news companies to make up stupid graphics and screen effects for. If you want fairness and equality, and you want to protect the rights of the minority, abolish the Electoral College.
As it stands the National Popular Vote (NPV) proposal is open to all fifty states and the District of Columbia. It provides that each member shall conduct a statewide popular vote for the election of the President, and appoint a chief election official to oversee the vote counting. This all seems perfectly logical, although the current NPV proposal also has its weaknesses; namely that it establishes a “compact” between member states that they may withdraw from at any time, as long as it is not six months or less before an election, is subject to abolishment in the case of the abolishment of the electoral college,.
You simply cannot do that. If we are going to make wholesale changes to our electoral system; it needs to be like the Mafia: once you’re in, you’re in. By establishing that member states must continue to be member states, and there is no “eject” button, we can effectively establish a fair and equitable system for electing the president that actually defends the rights of the minority within their locality, and brings voice to the disenfranchised American voter.
I want to make it clear before I continue, that I am not advocating for the National Popular Vote legislation as it stands now; rather I am defending and advocating for the popular vote as a concept and practice that should be explored and implemented through proper legal channels to reconnect the American people to their government, put pressure on the media to be accountable and honest by pushing more people to pay attention because they can in fact make a difference.
The memorandum from the CCP continues on to highlight “Concerns over ballot fraud, controversial election management practices and different recount processes would also create the potential for chaos and conflict.”[v]
That my friends; sounds an awful lot like our current system. Need I remind you that this is a system which allowed George W. Bush to win the presidency although he lost the popular vote; subsequently engulfing the country in two wars, allowing for the wholesale deregulation of the financial sector and markets, the deregulation of the housing market, and ultimately gutting the American dream in the name of big business.
Two hundred and twenty years ago: there was no housing market to collapse, there was no “big oil”, there was no “Al-Qaeda”, there were no planes to be hijacked, no computers, no cell phones, no television, internet, cars, trains, nuclear weapons, global warming, fossil fuels, education crises, gaping tax loopholes, egregious tax evasion aided by offshore banking, wire transfers of untold sums of money, drones that kill people from miles above with the push of a button, madmen who are working to obtain the means to wipe entire countries out with the push of a button, student loan debt, massive social programs that have been raided for corporate stability, urban sprawl, widespread pollution of the air, water, and earth, massive workforces in need of affordable transport, millions upon millions of people in the United States that need food, healthcare and shelter; as you can see, only a few things have changed since the adoption of the electoral college. It is time for the Electoral College to change as well.
Chaos and conflict are naive worries that can be rectified with intelligent and thought out policy making. Bringing representatives from each state (Governors or election officials would suffice) together in Washington to hash out a plan to make sure the people of their respective states have a voice in the presidential election is not something that is beyond us. We are the country that beat back the British and won our independence, stormed the beaches at Normandy and pushed back the Nazi’s, put a man on the moon, and crumbled the Iron Curtain: and you are going to tell me that we cannot figure out a new way to count our votes? I know we as a country seem far gone at times, but I think we can still do basic math, or at least develop a computer to do it for us.
To completely shut out and dismiss the prospect of a national popular vote is purely un-American. As the gentleman who came into my office continually reminded me: “We do not live in a pure democracy, and I do not believe in one.” And that is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. What is also true is that continuing to operate under an antiquated, inefficient, unfair and lazy system of vote counting pushes us further towards mindless obedience. We will become a nation of Pavlovian drones, mindlessly tolerating the power of he/she who yells the loudest and has the most money.
We cannot let that happen.
[iii] CCP Memo page 1
[iv] CCP Memo Page 1
[v] CCP memo page 3
Joe Alicata will be a senior at the University at Albany this fall, where he is studying public policy, philosophy and political science. Currently he is the opinions editor for the Albany Student Press, and will next year serve as the Editor in Chief. Additionally, Joe is the director of news for WCDB 90.9 FM, and host of “The Lowdown”. His interests include politics, philosophy, cooking, cars, weight lifting, and the occasional sunlit walk on the beach.