National Popular Vote- A Voter Turnout and Civil Rights Issue

We've seen in recent weeks the quadrennial year complaints about the disproportionate effects that a handful of states like Iowa and New Hampshire have on the nominating process, but that is just a shadow of the far larger distortion of our democracy due to the Electoral College.  

It's not just that the candidate who has won the popular vote can lose the Presidency. As this Stateside Dispatch will emphasize, the distortions in our political life, particularly to debates around civil rights, due to the Electoral College are even more profound. Every Presidential election year is warped by the disproportionate attention to a few "swing" states even as most states and their concerns are ignored by the candidates, leading to depressed turnout by many voters in less competitive states. 

But ending the anachronism of the Electoral College is moving forward in the states. Earlier this month, New Jersey Governor John Corzine signed a bill, S2695/A4225, making New Jersey the second state after Maryland to adopt the National Popular Vote interstate compact, an agreement to allocate the state's Presidential electors to whoever wins the popular vote nationally once a sufficient number of states adopt the compact.   The Illinois legislature also approved National Popular Vote this month and the bill awaits the governor's signature.

Along with both chambers in New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois, seven other legislative chambers have adopted National Popular Vote, including Arkansas House, California Senate, California Assembly, Colorado Senate, Hawaii House, Hawaii Senate, and the North Carolina Senate. In fact, 391 state legislators in 47 states have sponsored National Popular Vote legislation, so many other states are considering the reform this year. Given the overwhelming 70% plus support in polls for having the President elected by a majority of the nation's votes, this is welcome progress.

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Effects of Overfocus on Swing States- Less Voter Turnout

Studies emphasize that not only does the traditional Electoral College lead to elections narrowly focusing on a few states, but that the problem is in fact getting worse. In 1960, 25 states with 327 electoral votes were battlegrounds; by 2004, only 13 states with 159 electoral votes were considered competitive. 

The Electoral College is what has given us the ridiculous convention of "Red" versus "Blue" states, as if the voters for the minority party in any state doesn't exist-- but then again, under the Electoral College, they might as well not exist if they aren't in the majority in a closely contested state.  

The result is that voters in most states never see a candidate or even see a political commercial.  In 2004, for example, more than half of all campaign resources were dedicated to just three states-- Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.   More money was spent on television advertising in Florida during the heart of the 2004 campaign than in 45 states and the District of Columbia combined. 18 states saw neither a candidate visit nor received a cent of spending on TV advertisements.

For campaigns, there is no gain in encouraging increased turnout of their supporters in states where they can't get a majority or where they already have a safe win. Inevitably, a byproduct of the Electoral College is decreased turnout in less competitive states, since voters aren't e even being encouraged to vote by their own candidates. In 2004, voter turnout was 63% in the 12 most competitive states, while it was only 53% in the 12 least competitive states. Among young voters, the effect is especially profound with voter turnout among 18-29 year-olds was 64.4% in the 10 most competitive states and 47.6% in the remaining states ”“ a gap of 17%. 

Abolishing the Electoral College through establishing National Popular Vote is therefore one of the most important tools available to increase voter turnout-- and especially key for encouraging young voters to participate in our democracy and to feel that their vote actually matters.

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National Popular Vote as Civil Rights Issue

If voters in most states are ignored, then so will the issues they care about most. 

Tragically, one key example of this are issues of civil rights and racial equality, since non-white voters are disproportionately ignored since they are concentrated in non-competitive states. As the FairVote report, Presidential Elections Inequality, details, just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos live in the twelve closest battleground states from 2004. 

Therefore, roughly 80% of non-white voters might as well not exist, since campaigns ignore them and their concerns as they concentrate their campaigns on swing states where white voters are disproportionately concentrated compared to African-Americans and Latinos.  

In fact, the historic narrowing of the field of swing states over the decades has paralleled the narrowing of the discussion in campaigns and the national debate around racial inequality. It is reasonable to argue that decreasing focus on civil rights in the national debate derives from the fact that minority voters have increasingly been trapped in states where the election results are a foregone conclusion:

In the 1976 presidential election, 73% of African Americans were in a classic swing voter position: they lived in highly competitive states in which African Americans made up least 5% of the population. By 2000, that percentage of potential swing voters declined to 24%. In 2004, it fell to just 17%.

Because of the importance of increasing candidate focus on civil rights concerns, key leadership organizations representing communities of color, including the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Latino Congress and the Asian American Action Fund, have all endorsed National Popular Vote.

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Making National Popular Vote Work

The reason no Constitutional amendment is needed to create National Popular Vote is because the Constitution itself gives each state the right to allocate their votes as they choose. (For more details, see Every Vote Equal by the National Popular Vote organization.) States can allocate their Electoral College delegates proportionally to voting results in their states, by whoever wins a majority of a district, or, as would occur under National Popular Vote, to whoever wins a national majority.

The rise of the "winner-take-all" system of allocating Electoral College delegates came because each state feared fragmentation of its own political influence if it handed out delegates proportionately while other states gained campaign attention by being winner-take-all. 

To avoid that problem, National Popular Vote is designed to go into effect only when states with a majority of Electoral College votes adopt the process-- whereupon enough Electoral College votes will go to the candidate getting a majority of the national vote to assure that they become the next President.

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One of the great advantages of a National Popular Vote system would be the elimination of the need for almost any recounts, since while individual states like Florida in 2000 are occasionally very close, the overall national vote totals have never been so close that a recount would have likely altered the results. Similarly, since a shift of a few votes in any state could no longer be decisive in shifting a whole state's Electoral College votes, fraud in any particular state elections would be less of a concern.

But the greatest gain would be that every voter would know that their vote would matter, turnout on election day would increase, and candidates would be forced to address a much wider spectrum of voter concerns from all fifty states and the District of Columbia.