The case for a national popular vote

We need to ditch the Iowa caucus -- and stop giving Ohio and Florida so much power over our presidential elections

Topics: American Spring, 2012 Elections,

The case for a national popular vote (Credit: baldyrgan via Shutterstock)

With all eyes trained on Iowa and New Hampshire as their decisive presidential nominating contests approach, the question once again is upon us: Why should these two states have such disproportionate sway over American politics? This is a particularly pressing question right now because our increasingly multiethnic, urbanized nation looks less and less like these two small, super-white, largely rural, comparatively older enclaves. In effect, the system promotes a form of generational tyranny whereby a disappearing mid-20th-century model of America continues to wield disproportionate power over today’s 21st century America.

Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t get much better in the general election. Thanks to the undemocratic Electoral College, presidential elections take place in a few big swing states, but nowhere else. Essentially, the campaign for president becomes a glorified campaign for governor of Ohio, Colorado and Florida, with small cities like Dayton, Grand Junction and Fort Lauderdale being treated as much more important than huge population centers like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago where far more voters actually live.

Taken together, the system undermines the most basic notion of republican democracy: the idea that every voter gets equal representation in our national government. In American presidential races, it’s the opposite. Between the nominating process and general election, we have effectively denationalized our most important national election, allowing a tiny handful of voters to choose who represents all of us in the White House. For no substantive or defensible reason, these voters get this undemocratic, anti-republican power not because they are inherently more important, valuable, or demographically representative citizens (in fact, they are often less representative), but simply because they happen to live within a specific state whose nominating contests come early (New Hampshire/Iowa) or whose general elections tend to be narrowly won and lost.

As I noted in my most recent newspaper column, the fastest way to right at least some of this grotesque wrong is to move to a system that elects presidents via a national popular vote. It doesn’t entirely fix the electoral process, but it fixes a few major problems:



  • It ensures what should be a sacred guarantee in a republican democracy — the one-person-one-vote guarantee that the most powerful of the people’s representatives (aka the president) is the person who received the most votes, regardless of where those votes happen to come from.
  • By its very definition, such a system would create presidential general elections that were — on issues, themes and thrust — far more demographically representative of the whole nation than the current swing-state-fetishizing process.
  • It would finally end the absurd situation whereby the most powerful elected official in the land is the only elected official in America who isn’t required to get the most votes to win.

These basic, indisputable truths are almost certainly why polls now show the vast majority of Americans support scrapping the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote system. As the data prove, this country may be divided along partisan lines when it comes to public policy issues, but there is now an overwhelming transpartisan consensus about the basic unfairness of a presidential election system that makes a mockery out of republican democracy (no doubt, this is why states representing 132 Electoral College votes have now enacted national popular vote legislation, which pledges their electors solely to the winner of the national popular vote).

And yet, despite this consensus, I saw my email box this weekend fill up with some of the most vile vitriol I’ve ever received in response to a column. Between one reader literally wishing SIDS on my 1-year-old son, and another accusing me of advocating Stalinism, these emails all channeled five crazy-but-revealing red herrings about the national popular vote. Each email writer was just as hysterical as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who claimed that the campaign is a “genuine threat to our country” — and the similarities between all of them suggest that those opposed to the intensifying national popular vote campaign are gearing up a coordinated, talking-point-driven assault as more states seem poised to enact the plan. We are likely to hear more of these talking points as the plan moves closer to reality — so in advance of that, let’s just preemptively debunk them.

1. “The national popular vote plan is unconstitutional.”

Glenn Beck and Tea Party zealots have taught us all that selectively citing the Constitution and the Founding Fathers has become the refuge du jour of willful ignoramuses and charlatans — and the same principle holds true when it comes to opponents of the national popular vote. They insist that Article 2 creating the Electoral College means a national popular vote is unconstitutional.

Yet, when making this argument, they deliberately omit the part of the Article that grants states the exclusive power to determine how their electors are apportioned (“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors”). These powers, of course, are already in use: Some states award their electors proportionally while some give all their electors to the winner in their state. All the national popular vote plan does is use the very same constitutional power to give a state’s electors to the winner of the national popular vote.

Notably, the same Republican Party that claims the national popular vote campaign is somehow unconstitutional has simultaneously championed the use of Article 2 apportionment power in Pennsylvania. Why the double standard? Because the Pennsylvania plan is designed specifically to help GOP presidential candidates, while the national popular vote plan is not.

2. “The national popular vote plan would undermine federalism.”

When backed into a corner on almost any issue, Republicans inevitably scream “states’ rights,” hoping that Americans’ traditional affinity for local control will sway them to the GOP’s side. As applied to the national popular vote campaign, opponents claim it is a usurpation of state power. Somehow ignored is the fact that the federal government isn’t forcing anything onto the states — on the contrary, state legislatures are voting to use their sovereign power in Article 2 to affirmatively devote their electors to the winner of the national popular vote.

Considering that, the true assault on federalism comes from those who want to block states’ constitutional right to make such a decision. They are in effect saying that one state’s desire to apportion its electors in a certain way (say, winner-take-all) must be the way every other state does it.

Thankfully, the Founders — who were highly protective of federalist power — made sure to constitutionally prevent this kind of my-way-or-the-highway authoritarianism. In Article 2, they wisely guaranteed that if a state believes it’s important to give its electors to the national popular vote winner, that state has the clear constitutional authority to do so.

3. “The national popular vote plan will allow New York City and Los Angeles to dominate presidential elections.”

Like “states’ rights,” bashing coastal cities is a tried and true ploy of Republicans to pretend they represent so-called heartland values. Not surprisingly, conservative opponents of the national popular vote employ the same tactic, screaming that we must preserve the Electoral College because it prevents coastal cities from dominating presidential elections. This line of argument undoubtedly taps into the worst — if unspoken — stereotypes that have traditionally animated American history’s typical race-tinged conservative backlashes. Basically, the same conservative movement that capitalized on the white backlash to the civil rights movement, demonized “welfare queens” and aired Willie Horton ads is now pioneering a new kind of dog-whistle racism aiming to gin up bigoted fears that without the undemocratic Electoral College, poor, urban minorities will be allowed to unduly control presidential elections.

The problem with the argument (beyond its racist tenor) is that it makes no sense. All the national popular vote idea does is make all votes equal, regardless of their geography. So, for instance, rather than the current Electoral College system, which makes a small town in Ohio far more important to presidential candidates than a bigger city like Omaha, Neb., the national popular vote system makes Omaha as important as any similarly sized metropolis, no matter where that metropolis is.

Yes, this would certainly make electorally ignored liberal cities like New York and Los Angeles more important in presidential elections than they currently are. But it would also make more conservative cities that are currently ignored important, too (think: Dallas, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, etc.).

4. “The national popular vote plan violates the idea of republican democracy.”

Any time there’s a debate about expanding the franchise or democratic rights, it’s a guarantee that some arrogant know-it-all who has never actually looked up the definition of “republic” will flippantly tell you to go read a history book and learn that “America is not a democracy, it’s republic.” The idea here is that because we have a representative form of government — rather than a direct democracy voting on every issue/bill — any attempt to crush democracy is legitimate and even laudable. In this view, the Electoral College is somehow a pillar of republican democracy, because it prevents a direct election of a president. By the same inane reasoning, circumventing the Electoral College takes the crucial “republican” out of American democracy.

However, nobody would argue with a straight face that the existence of state governors is antithetical to republican democracy. Nobody would argue that the existence of mayors fundamentally threatens representative government. Nobody would make such arguments because they are simply absurd. These elected officials win office through popular votes in their states and cities, and they serve a crucial role in a republican democracy — the role of the people’s representative in state and municipal executive branches. The same would be the case for the federal government’s executive branch — under a national popular vote system, the people’s representative in the White House would simply be elected in the same way every other executive officeholder is elected.

The dictionary definition of a republic — which many national popular vote opponents clearly forgot to look up — is “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” A national popular vote falls well within that definition by directly electing America’s representative in the White House.

5. “The national popular vote plan is a liberal plot designed to help Barack Obama.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone actually subscribes to the Secret Obama Plot delusion, but as the wave of email I got this weekend proves, this fantastical form of paranoia is definitely out there — and growing. In this crazed mythology, since polls show Obama is facing a tough road in the big swing states most valued by the Electoral College system, liberals are trying to rescue him by — gasp! — making sure the president is the candidate who wins the most votes in America.

Of course, if Obama is as eminently beatable and wildly unpopular as cocky Republicans say he is, then they shouldn’t have any problem whatsoever beating him in a national popular vote — and they most certainly shouldn’t take issue with a plan whereby traditionally Democratic states like California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington state (all of which are already signed onto the National Popular Vote plan) would devote their electors to the Republican presidential candidate, even if he/she doesn’t win the majority of votes in that state.

Considering this, the Secret Obama Plot idea betrays a disturbing truth: Republicans are clearly afraid that, if subjected to genuine democracy, Americans will reject their party. And so, rather than change their extreme policy agenda, the GOP is trying to limit democracy and preserve the undemocratic Electoral College.

- — – — – — -

While the five aforementioned arguments are fact-free red herrings, there are substantive arguments against the national popular vote idea. They’re just weak.

If, for instance, you live in a swing state, you can genuinely argue that the Electoral College system serves you well — and damn right, it most certainly does. Your vote is far more important than millions of other votes in “safe” states. Indeed, a tiny 5,000 person town in rural Florida is arguably more important in deciding the next president than all 2.6 million people in Chicago — and if you are one of those Floridians, that’s a fantastic amount of power to have over everyone else. But for the rest of us, it’s not such a sweet deal — and it definitely doesn’t resemble anything that can be called democracy, republican or otherwise.

The Electoral College (like the United States Senate) also vests rural America with far more power than urban America. Presidential candidates are forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time campaigning in and pandering to rural areas in swing states, rather than simply campaigning wherever the most actual voters are. Obviously, if you live in rural America, that’s great for you. But, in setting things up this way, the system makes a subjective value judgment that even though America is increasingly urbanized and suburbanized, rural America’s votes are somehow more important than everyone else’s. Why should someone who happens to live in a place with low population density be automatically granted more political power than someone who opts to live in a place with high population density? It makes absolutely no sense — except to those narcissists who believe they are somehow entitled to have more power than others based solely on their geography.

This underlying sense of entitlement is perhaps the ugliest part of the whole Electoral College debate. Those small-staters and rural Americans defending the geography-dependent system as moral are not only insulting the notion of “one person, one vote,” they are making the ugly, outdated and vaguely bigoted assertion that people who live in cities should continue to be less important than people who live in small towns. And it’s hardly a coincidence that in a country that still struggles with hardcore racism, this specific argument is finding traction as cities become more ethnically and racially diverse. But just because an argument appeals to racists and geographic supremacists doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate basis for national elections.

Make no mistake about it: As the campaign to pass national popular vote legislation presses into new states, and as we eventually approach the moment when states representing a majority of electors sign on, Republicans are going to do everything they can to distract attention from what the campaign is really all about. Lacking any moral rationale for a system that values one set of voters over another and that allows losing candidates to win the highest office in the land, GOP politicians and their base voters will come up with all kinds of fairy tales to try to stop the will of the vast majority of Americans who support the national popular vote. In the process, though, they will continue exposing themselves for what they really are: Committed authoritarians who loathe the most basic American ideals of republican democracy.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a staff writer at PandoDaily and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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