Dropping Out of Electoral College

Maryland is the first state to pass the National Popular Vote (NPV) into law, and several others are right behind

Martha BiondiDecember 31, 2007

A Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty com­put­er sci­en­tist named John Koza has for­mu­lat­ed a com­pelling and prag­mat­ic alter­na­tive to the Elec­toral Col­lege. It’s called Nation­al Pop­u­lar Vote (NPV), and has been hailed as inge­nious” by two New York Times edi­to­ri­als. In April, Mary­land became the first state to pass it into law. And sev­er­al oth­er states, includ­ing Illi­nois and New Jer­sey, are like­ly to fol­low suit.

How NPV works is this: Instead of a state award­ing its elec­tors to the top vote-get­ter in that state’s win­ner-take-all pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the state would give its elec­toral votes to the win­ner of the nation­al pop­u­lar vote. This would be per­fect­ly legal because the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion grants states the right to deter­mine how to cast their elec­toral votes, so no con­gres­sion­al or fed­er­al approval would be required. NPV could go into effect nation­wide as soon as enough states pass it (enough states to tal­ly 270 elec­toral votes – the mag­ic num­ber need­ed to elect a pres­i­dent). In 2008, NPV bills are expect­ed to be intro­duced in all 50 states.

We’ll have it by 2012,” says Robert Richie, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the reform group Fair Vote.

NPV is an agree­ment between the states to hon­or the wish­es of a plu­ral­i­ty of Amer­i­can vot­ers. (Koza came up with the idea from his expe­ri­ence work­ing on lot­ter­ies, where state com­pacts are common.)

In the last 20 years, par­ti­san trends have made pres­i­den­tial elec­tions a series of sep­a­rate con­tests in a shrink­ing num­ber of com­pet­i­tive states. Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates alike con­sid­er two-thirds of the states to be spec­ta­tor states.” They often ignore vot­er reg­is­tra­tion efforts and spend con­sid­er­ably less mon­ey in those states – if they vis­it them at all.

In 2004, can­di­dates spent 99 per­cent of cam­paign fund­ing in only 16 states, leav­ing the rest of the coun­try with­out a polit­i­cal voice. High­ly pop­u­lat­ed states like New York and Cal­i­for­nia, and states in much of the South, are con­sid­ered safe” and there­fore offer lit­tle incen­tive for can­di­dates to pay atten­tion to their residents.

Cur­rent­ly, 70 per­cent of white vot­ers and 80 per­cent of non-white vot­ers live in spec­ta­tor states. In the 70s, three in four black vot­ers lived in swing states where their pop­u­la­tion total was larg­er than the mar­gin of dif­fer­ence in elec­tions. But today, only 17 per­cent of black vot­ers are in that posi­tion. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates pay less atten­tion to issues that con­cern many African Americans.

Accord­ing to its advo­cates, NPV promis­es basic fair­ness. For exam­ple, as elec­toral rules stand now, the los­er of the nation­al pop­u­lar vote can still be elect­ed pres­i­dent, as hap­pened in 2000. Under NPV, all votes in the coun­try would count the same. NPV would, in Richie’s view, awak­en people’s belief in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change” and prove that fun­da­men­tal­ly unfair struc­tures can be reformed.

Over the years, accord­ing to Koza and Richie, 65 to 70 per­cent of U.S. vot­ers have sup­port­ed direct elec­tion of the pres­i­dent. The declin­ing num­ber of bat­tle­ground states now gives many states an incen­tive to sign on.

Illi­nois is the quin­tes­sen­tial exam­ple of the flaws in the cur­rent sys­tem. As a safe state for Democ­rats, both major par­ty can­di­dates ignore it. There is lit­tle moti­va­tion to cam­paign there since the win­ner in Illi­nois gets only 21 elec­toral votes and the los­er gets noth­ing. As a result, Illi­nois vot­ers play vir­tu­al­ly no role in shap­ing the issues of the election.

Illi­nois stands to become the sec­ond state to pass an NPV law. Last spring, the state house and sen­ate passed bills that are cur­rent­ly being resolved and will head to the desk of Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich, who as a mem­ber of Con­gress sup­port­ed efforts to reform the Elec­toral College.

Accord­ing to advo­cates, New Jer­sey also appears like­ly to pass the law this year. 

Koza, who orig­i­nat­ed the plan for NPV, also chairs Nation­al Pop­u­lar Vote Inc., the coali­tion lead­ing the nation­al cam­paign. He pre­dicts the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will be a turn­ing point in the rise of NPV.

Cur­rent­ly, it’s hard to imag­ine a party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee vis­it­ing Harlem, N.Y., Comp­ton, Calif., or Detroit, Mich., nev­er mind invest­ing in vot­er reg­is­tra­tion efforts in these poor, pre­dom­i­nant­ly black and Lati­no areas. But a fair­er, more demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ing sys­tem could hold the poten­tial to trans­form the elec­toral process and revive grass­roots par­tic­i­pa­tion in politics.

Martha Bion­di is a pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and author, most recent­ly, of The Black Rev­o­lu­tion on Cam­pus.
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