Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.
If you thought the presidential election was decided back in November, you were wrong. On Thursday, Jan. 8, the Electoral College's votes for president were counted by Congress. In theory, those 538 obscure individuals could have decided to make John McCain, or, for that matter, Bob Barr, the next president. They did nothing of the sort. But, just to be on the safe side, perhaps it is time to get rid of this arcane institution?
Shortly before Election Day, The Washington Post published a map of presidential-candidate visits by state. It showed the attention paid to states was not just a reflection of their population. California, Texas, and New York received hardly any love from Barack Obama or John McCain. And while perennial favorites Ohio and Pennsylvania battled for the top slot, relatively tiny states such as New Hampshire received more visits than any of the nation's three largest. Some medium-sized non-swing states, such as Mississippi and Kentucky did not see a single appearance by Obama or McCain. All of this is thanks to the Electoral College.
Ad spending shows a similar trend. Purple Pennsylvania received more than $10 million in spending on campaign advertisements, while its blue neighbor New Jersey received not a single dollar, according to CNN. (This presumably ignores the fact that some South Jersey residents get Philadelphia television and radio stations.) But the contrasts between Republican-leaning states and swing states was every bit as stark. Colorado had more than $10 million in ads while Utah had less than $1 million. Vast swaths of the country such as the Great Plains from Oklahoma to North Dakota, and most of the South and Appalachia, including sizable states such as Tennessee and Louisiana, received less than $1 million in advertising each while every Upper Midwest State, save for Illinois, received more than $5 million, and all of those except Minnesota got more than $10 million.
But, while Republican states seem to suffer the worst from the vicissitudes of the Electoral College, it is red state Republican politicians who are the least interested in the increasingly discussed solution of switching to a national popular vote. While polls show replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote is as popular in Mississippi as it is in Michigan, the state Houses that have passed bills in support of the switch are dominated by Democrats. That's because the movement to abolish the Electoral College, spearheaded by the National Popular Vote Initiative (NPVI), a California-based nonprofit, is largely associated with the left -- and dismissed by the right as a Democratic power grab. But could it actually benefit red-state Republicans as much or more than blue-state Democrats? And if so, why have so few Republicans and conservatives embraced it?
The National Popular Vote Initiative was founded in 2006 and is largely funded by its founder John Koza, who made his fortune in lottery-ticket manufacture and, by his own admission, has donated more to Democrats than to Republicans over the years. The NPVI circumvents the need for a constitutional amendment by simply getting enough states to pass laws saying they will pledge all the electors to the winner of the national popular vote once enough states to form a majority have signed on. It has become law in four states, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey, which collectively account for 50 Electoral College votes, nearly 20 percent of the 270 needed. In addition, it has passed 21 legislative chambers. Even some small states, which stand to lose their disproportionate influence, have shown interest. In Vermont and Rhode Island, it has passed both chambers of the state legislatures.
In the legislatures that have passed the NPVI, which are all controlled by Democrats, it has attracted Republican support. But there are not enough blue states to form the Electoral College majority they need.
Memories of the 2000 election, where a popular vote would have put Al Gore in office, seem to hang heavy over both parties. "I perceive it to be a liberal or Democratic response to the Bush elections," says John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina conservative think tank. Hood opposed the North Carolina state legislature's effort to pass NPVI. "I think that the Bush-Gore memory may have some undercurrents for Republicans," explains Kirk Dillard, a Republican state senator in Illinois who co-sponsored the popular-vote bill there. "But the National Popular Vote Initiative doesn't help one party or another. It just helps Americans in general."
"Some of the Republican opposition has been very knee-jerk, as has some of the Democratic support," says Robert Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, an electoral-reform group.
The Electoral College does favor Republicans by giving outsized influence to small, rural states, which tend to lean toward the GOP, since each state has as many electors as it has congressional representatives plus senators. But that doesn't mean there aren't plausible scenarios in which the Republican wins the popular vote and loses the Electoral College. In 2004, a swing of 60,000 voters from Bush to Kerry in Ohio would have handed Kerry that state's electors and the presidency, even though Bush defeated Kerry by 3 million votes nationally. It is perfectly plausible that a future Democratic candidate could lose by huge margins in the South and Great Plains while eking out victories in the Northeast and Midwest and wind up president despite losing the popular vote.
And it is impossible to know how many votes each candidate might have won in any past election had it been truly national. Rather than focusing resources solely on competitive states, Bush and his opponents would have invested in advertising and turnout throughout the country, and one can only guess at what the popular vote totals might be then. Also, as the total reversal of the South from Democratic to Republican -- and then the beginnings seen this year of a flip back again -- demonstrates, the 2000 electoral map is not frozen in time. Regional preferences can change -- problematic for any party deciding what electoral system to support on the basis of whom it might benefit.
Meanwhile, it is those deep red rural states that are being the most ignored under the current system. Big blue states such as New York, California, and Illinois may not get many speeches, but they do hold a lot of fundraisers. Big blue states have donors and bundlers with access to the campaigns and opportunities to make their priorities known. A poor red state, even a decent-sized one such as Alabama or Tennessee, is not a fundraising magnet. Richie says that according to his group's data, "wealthier campaign donors are disproportionately in blue rather than red states."
But adopting the popular vote would mean that candidates of both parties would have plenty of incentive to come to Alabama, and especially a big state such as Texas, to get out as many of their numerous supporters there as possible.
So you would think that maybe Republicans in those states would be glomming onto the idea. But so far there is no evidence that they are. In fact, if anything, the opposite has happened. In Texas, the state Republican Party decided in 2006 to add a plank to its platform affirming its support for the Electoral College, explicitly rejecting the growing popular-vote movement.
"Texas' underrepresentation [in the Electoral College] doesn't bother me," says Eric Opiela, the executive director of the Texas Republican Party. "This is the system the Constitution put in place, and it's worked for over 200 years." Opiela denies that perceived Republican advantage under the current system played any role in the party's decision to add the Electoral College plank.
Whatever the motivation for the Texas GOP's opposition to the NPVI, there certainly are valid concerns about it. It would make elections far more expensive because candidates would need to compete in the nation's largest, most expensive media markets. Campaigns might be even more polarizing, since candidates would stand to benefit from turning out their base in not only swing states but in the country's most liberal and conservative regions. Tara Ross, author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College, also argues that it would eliminate the two-party system. (Some might view this as a feature rather than bug in the system.) Since all one needs to win an election under the NPVI system is a plurality, Ross reasons, independent candidates and smaller parties would have a more plausible chance of winning than under the Electoral College where they must convince skeptics that they will win a plurality in an Electoral College majority of states. Eliminating the Electoral College, she warns, means we could be watching State of the Unions from a President Perot or Ventura.
The merits of these arguments are not all indisputable. Some would say that more expensive or polarizing elections are a small price to pay for the enfranchisement of the majority of citizens who happen not to live in a swing state. Others would suggest that a winner-take-all, as the NPVI would be, rather than a parliamentary system, will leave the two-party system intact, like it or not.
But it seems that, for now at least, most politicians and activists are making up their mind whether to support the popular vote based on what they perceive as their side's political advantage, although they may be wrong about what that is. "Maybe I just am against it as a resident of a new battleground state," jokes Hood. "But honestly, I don't want to see all those ads anyway."
Correction: In the original article we stated that no red-state Republican legislators supported NPV. In fact, two Republicans in Arizona are co-sponsors of the legislation; and one Republican in Montana and two in North Dakota supported the bill in the unsuccessful votes in those states.