A Real Popularity Contest

If next year's presidential race is anything like the 2004 contest, candidates will spend more than 66 percent of their ad money and campaign visits in just five "battleground" states, and 99 percent in 16 states. According to organizations like FairVote and Common Cause, the reason for this gross incongruity is our much-maligned electoral process, by which a candidate needs only 270 electoral votes to become president. It is this process that led Al Gore to lose in 2000, even though he won the popular vote by some 450,000 votes. And if the last two elections were any indication, next year's race could maddeningly boil down to the electoral votes of one key state, just as it did for Gore in Florida and John Kerry in Ohio.

Watching the last two elections from the sidelines has sparked a campaign in some states to circumvent the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote (NPV). Under our Electoral College, each state confers all of its electoral votes on the winner of the popular vote in that state (except in Maine and Nebraska, which operate by congressional districts). This winner-take-all system effectively disenfranchises citizens who live in so-called spectator states. And it skews campaign issues toward battlegrounds, ignoring the concerns of the majority of Americans.

The NPV movement seeks to change all that.

Last April, Maryland became the first state to enact legislation that would establish an interstate compact -- an agreement to award each participating state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Since the Constitution gave the states plenary control in allocating electoral votes (a decision repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court), each state has the right to make changes to the Electoral College. Basically, NPV would take effect if at least 20 to 25 states enter the compact to guarantee a majority of 270 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular election.

According to Jamie Raskin, the Maryland state senator who pushed for the passage of NPV, the time to rethink our electoral process is now. "Maryland is a deep blue state which could only watch the last two presidential elections unfold in a handful of other states," Raskin told me. (In 2004, volunteers were even exported from Maryland to battleground states as the election neared.)

The issue is attracting a lot of attention as we gear up (a year in advance) for a major national election. But the problems with our current electoral system go beyond the four-year presidential election cycle.

When four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004 within a six-week span, the federal response was both immediate and laudable, especially when compared to the pathetic relief given to Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina a year later. In Florida, FEMA set records both in evacuating and raising aid for hurricane victims. By contrast, FEMA left tens of thousands of New Orleanians stranded in atrocious shelters like the Superdome or the Morial Convention Center while the federal government failed to prepare for the disaster or provide adequate relief.

Katrina was far more destructive in part because of the federal government's colossal collapse in infrastructure, but why couldn't the lessons and leadership from Florida in 2004 have been applied to Louisiana one year later? Perhaps one reason is because a fundamental difference between these two states is that Florida has become a crucial election battleground -- and Louisiana is not. FairVote's "Presidential Elections Inequality" report concluded that in the run up to the 2004 election, the four major presidential and vice-presidential candidates visited Florida 61 times (out of 291 campaign stops nationwide). What's more, over $64 million was spent on television ads during that time in Florida out compared with or out of a total of $237 million spent everywhere else. Startlingly, Louisiana received zero campaign visits and only $203,000 worth of ads in this period.

Our electoral process has also taken its toll on our national discourse. John Koza, NPV's chairman, told me there has been a shift in the issues that are receiving attention during the elections, and it all revolves around the interests of battleground states. "Take the Cuban issue in Florida," Koza said. "Why is this a national debate?" In addition, Koza pointed out that topics like ethanol and auto parts receive a disproportionate amount of attention because they are important in swing states like Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In this bizarre prioritization, these issues become a major focus during election time even though they don't affect the majority of Americans who live in "safe states," regardless of whether they are red or blue.

NPV now has 366 sponsors in 47 states. It has passed 11 legislative chambers, and has significant momentum in 16 states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, which could vote on the issue this year. In addition to FairVote and Common Cause, NPV has received endorsements from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Asian Action Fund, National Latino Congreso, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and a slew of current and former congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle. Of course, since this is a popular vote, it is public support that matters most, and according to a Washington Post poll from June, NPV garners 72 percent public support. Still, mustering a successful interstate compact won't be easy.

According to Hendrik Hertzberg, a FairVote board member and journalist with The New Yorker, "NPV hasn't really burst into the front rank of national conversation, partly because it doesn't have a big press or political machine behind it." He added, "Republicans are needlessly suspicious, thinking it would be a Bush-Gore do-over." Concerned Republicans who recall the contested 2000 election might be more inclined to support NPV if they consider that a shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have delivered the majority of electoral votes (and thus the presidency) to Kerry, even though Bush won the nationwide popular vote by 3.5 million.

There are many other qualms with NPV, of course, including the erroneous assumption that it would take a constitutional amendment to change our electoral process, and the knee-jerk reaction that big cities would control our elections. "An amendment is completely unnecessary since this is left to the states exclusively," said Koza, who sees NPV taking hold by 2012. "Nor is it what the Founding Fathers had in mind." As to the big city argument, Koza pointed out gubernatorial races as a model. If big cities vote democratically, then there would be a history of Democratic governors in states with America's biggest cities, instead of George Pataki in New York, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, and Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. In other words, under NPV, Democratic candidates would need to campaign throughout the rural areas of these states just as much as Republicans would need to deliver the cities.

One of the most vocal opponents of NPV has been John Samples of the Cato Institute. Samples told me that his biggest concern over NPV is an ideological one. "We're worried this will be an extension of a fifty- to sixty- year tendency to create a national political consciousness and a national electoral district." Samples called the project of building an interstate compact instead of seeking to pass a constitutional amendment "audacious."

What is no less audacious, however, is rampant gerrymandering, such as the current conservative plan to carve up California's electoral districts. If passed, the California Initiative could transform this once safely Democratic stronghold into a 20-electoral vote pickup for Republicans, who would redraw district lines to protect their incumbents. Hertzberg, who called the California Initiative "the lotusland equivalent of Tom Delay's 2003 redistricting of Texas."

He also chuckled at Samples' ideological objection to NPV. "What would be so wrong with having a national political consciousness?" he wondered. "A national election would stimulate political involvement all down the line." Indeed, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reported that voter turnout in battleground states increased by 6.3 percent in the 2004 election, while turnout in other states only increased by 3.8 percent.

Imagine what the turnout would be if everyone's vote counted.