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Monday, April 9, 2012


Contrary to what everyone says, it is actually possible to learn something by watching television.  Case in point:  I was watching Chuck Todd's hour long show on MSNBC this morning while I was making the bed [it comes on at nine a.m. after Morning Joe, which I enjoy on the rare occasions when Joe Scarborough is not there] and I listened to an interview with a rather dour individual who was a spokesperson for something called the National Popular Vote Bill.  This is a well-funded nation-wide effort to circumvent the Electoral College and institute the practice of choosing as president the person who gets the most votes in a national election.

The natural way to accomplish this is by a Constitutional Amendment, but that would be impossible to bring off, because there are enough small over-represented states in the nation to constitute a blocking one-third of the fifty states.  This is not exactly an accident.  The complicated political compromise that became our political system was originally designed explicitly to protect the institution of slavery -- the price the Southern states demanded for their participation in what today we call nation-building -- and to protect the smaller colonies from domination by the larger ones.  As time has passed and our politics have evolved, the Electoral College system has served quite well to magnify the power and influence of the relatively small numbers of people who live in the lightly populated states. 

Just to remind those of you who did not have the benefit of a Civics class in high school [mine was, as I recall, in my Freshman year, which is to say 1947], or who live abroad and find our curious political system too dense to penetrate, each state is assigned a number of Electors equal to the total number of its Members of the House of Representatives and Senate combined [hence a total of 535 in all].  The members of the House are allocated in a manner reasonably proportional to population, although the Constitution stipulates that each state must have at least one Representative, and there are actually several states so unpopulated that they do not even have 1/435th of the nation's population in their borders.  But each state has the same number of Senators, and this rather dramatically unbalances the relationship between population and Electoral Votes.

The strategy behind the National Popular Vote Bill campaign is to recruit state legislatures to make a provisional commitment to allocate their Electors in a presidential race to whichever candidate gets the most votes nationally, the commitment to take effect once states having in total 270 Electoral votes have signed on.  Once that happens, regardless of what the remaining states do, the states in the compact will be able to guarantee that the winner of the popular vote will get enough Electoral votes [i.e., 270] to win the election.  For those with short memories, the last time the loser of the popular vote won the presidency was in 2000. 

Because of the political complexion of the states with the most caches of Electoral votes, this effort is widely, and correctly, I think, seen as effectively an effort to push the country to the left, although of course nothing remotely like that is ever said by the proponents of the campaign.

Thus far, a dozen or more state legislatures have passed the bill [who knew?] representing about half of the 270 Electoral votes needed.  If the campaign manages to persuade enough additional state legislatures to enact the bill [and assuming that the Electors vote in the Electoral College as their state legislatures have instructed them to do, something they are not required to do by the U. S. Constitution], presidential elections will henceforward de facto be contests for popular votes alone, without a word of the Constitution having been altered.

The effect on presidential campaigns would be electric.  I think there is no doubt about that.  As things are now, campaigns virtually ignore safe states, even those having huge caches of Electoral votes.  No Democratic candidate is going to waste much time or money campaigning in New York or California, despite their size, because they are absolutely sure to vote Democratic, and a 55/45 victory yields exactly as many Electoral votes as a 60/40 or 65/35 victory.  But if it is total votes, and only total votes, that count, then it makes very good sense to spend scarce resources getting one's supporters to the polls in safe states, because there are likely to be large concentrations of such additional votes in safe districts.  If a ward or precinct regularly gives 85% of its votes to one party or the other, as happens in many places all over the country, the non-voters in that ward or precinct are likely to break in the same fashion.  Why labor to locate and persuade a so-called "independent" voter in a swing state when with much less effort and money, you can get a reliable supporter to the polls?

As a political junkie on the left, I find this campaign intriguing.  I can think of some powerful arguments against it, but I think I shan't mention them.  hem hem.


Matt Shafer said...

What do you suppose is the likelihood of the risk that electors — being not constitutionally obligated to vote in accordance with the demands of this bill — will simply ignore it? Is there reason to think it's meaningfully higher than the risk that electors will vote against their own state results under the current system?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hard to say. There have of course in recent history been cases of Electors voting for someone who did not win the state, but it has never actually changed an outcome.

Matt Shafer said...

I would guess, unfortunately, that this proposal is more likely to meet with elector resistance, at least in red states (though these are the states that are least likely to pass the law to begin with, I suspect). Republicans are likely to denounce this bill as "another assault on states' rights," and I wouldn't be surprised to see grassroots (or astroturf) campaigns to persuade electors to still vote along state lines.

It will remain to be seen whether a right-wing campaign against this idea would achieve success in the relevant states; I'm encouraged by your noting that elector-switching hasn't changed any recent elections. At any rate, I really like this particular proposal, given that it would move the country toward both more just electoral processes (ie, more democratic) and more just electoral outcomes (ie, liberal electoral victories).

toto said...

There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. The electors now are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

If a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Democratic party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. If a Republican presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Republican party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate who collects 270 votes from Electoral College voters from among the winning party's dedicated activists.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

(Great statistic, by the way.) The real question is this: Suppose a state that has joined the compact votes for the candidate who receievd a minority of the votes nation wide. They will be electors loyal to the candidate who received a minority of the votes nationwide but a majority in their own state. Will they vote for the csndidate who won a majority of the votes nationwide? That is what the compact commits them to, but will they do it? In 2000, this would have meant a group of Florida Republican electors voting for Gore.

toto said...

States in the National Popular Vote compact commit to award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in the country. The enacting states no longer award their electors based upon the winner in their states.

If a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes in the country, the state's dedicated Democratic party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. If a Republican presidential candidate receives the most votes in the country, the state's dedicated Republican party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Toto, thanks for the clarification. In that case, it would work. Are you in any way connected with the effort?

Mitch said...

You forgot Washington, DC. DC gets the same number of Electoral Votes as the smallest state, so it has 3 votes. The total for the College is 538. (But, of course ,this wasn't true in 1947.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

whoops, sorry about that. I might have noticed that 270 is one more than half 538, and that Nate Silver's statistical blog is called

Buck Batard said...

In Pennsylvania we have a House and Senate controlled by Republicans who want to reduce the size of the legislature. I made a comment of pure snark on one article which I will post here and will include a link to the other. I hear so much about the founding fathers, it's difficult to believe people think we have anything like the original government. At the time of the founding of the nation, every legislature in the US House of Representatives represented 30,000 people. Today that number is over 700,000 and counting. I've read general comments like this elsewhere so my ideas are not original, I swipe as often as former White House speechwriters have said they have done, but I don't think I've read the actual numbers before I looked them up. Every year that goes by our legislators are out of touch with the people.
Here's the snark comment -see below the asterisks - and the link of the longer argument which argues why our government no longer represents the people is here

scroll down to Buck Batard's comment-it's too long to post and I apologize for the grammar and syntax and spelling errors but it is hard to edit in these little boxes (or I could admit that I'm lazy in newspaper comment sections and leave it at that).

Every legislator should represent the same number of citizens as the average lawmaker in Pennsylvania represented when the founding fathers created this nation. That would mean expanding the number of representatives dramatically but we could temper that by dramatically cutting the salaries and benefits to what the legislators made when Benjamin Franklin was in Philadelphia. Perhaps we could even give legislators the kind of medical care that was popular in that time. It might take a while, but surely we could find doctors who know how to "bleed" a patient using various snail like creatures to accomplish the art of healing their patient. It would be nice to see the tables turned on the legislators for a change. The legislature could then be composed of part time legislators who spend most of their time interacting with their constituents. Each citizen could then have a very close relationship with his or her representative and thus each would be more likely to vote in the interest of his constituents and not the big moneyed interests that now seem to control our government.

I hear so much about the founding fathers, let's bring back the kind of government that was in existence in yesteryear. We might also eliminate the Senate, electoral government of the people and not of the moneyed interests should prevail, which is what Benjamin Franklin advocated for passionately.

High Arka said...

Mr. Wolff, does your great connection to other humans make you feel any qualms about supporting someone who launches robot bombs that slaughter so many children?

You have a great cheering section of clowns who are impressed by your degree into pursuing your affections, but in a very substantial way, you are a terror of the human race. You are a bloated white wealthy citizen of empire who supports its foulest doings. Your actions stand wholly against your words.

Dead children. In piles. Millions of them. Dripping blood on your pretty keyboard. Do you care enough to stop calling on us to support the mastermind who killed them?