Time for an end run around the Electoral College?

This year’s presidential election didn’t bring us the sort of one-state Electoral College cliffhanger that we had in 2000 and 2004, but there are those who still believe the EC as it stands is an outdated relic.

A leader of that movement — John Koza, a computer scientist who’s a consulting professor in Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering and Medicine departments — is delivering a lecture this afternoon at the University of California, Berkeley. His argument is that in the existing system, a candidate has no reason to poll, visit, advertise in or even pay much attention to states where he/she or his/her opponent enjoys a seemingly insurmountable lead; witness how California usually serves as little more than a campaign-cash ATM for candidates. But if the president is picked by a direct national popular vote, he says, every state becomes a battleground.

It wouldn’t even take a constitutional amendment. National Popular Vote — a nonprofit of which Koza is vice president, and Lafayette political attorney Barry Fadem is president — notes the Constitution’s Article II, Section I lets each state appoint electors “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” That means there’s nothing stopping state Legislatures from agreeing — via an interstate compact — to throw their electors to the candidate who won the most votes nationwide.

So far, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey have enacted laws approving such a compact. Legislatures in some other states, including Rhode Island, Vermont and California, have passed such bills but seen them vetoed; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed them twice, in 2006 and 2008.

This year’s bill was SB 37 by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco; in his Sept. 30 veto message, Schwarzenegger said the bill “represents a significant departure away from letting each individual state choose how to award its presidential electoral votes and towards a national vote for president. Because California’s endorsement of a national popular vote would significantly change the debate on the matter, enactment of this bill would represent a major shift in the way not only Californians but all Americans choose their president. Such a significant change should be voted on by the people. As such, I cannot support this measure but encourage the proponents to seek approval of the people for the changes it proposes.”

Foes of the plan say relying only on national numbers would send candidates careening to the coasts and big cities, leaving the nation’s interior as nothing but “flyover states.”

But supporters note the smallest states aren’t getting presidential attention anyway — for the past 20 years, six of the 13 least populous states have regularly gone Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota) and six others have regularly gone Democratic (Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and the District of Columbia); only New Hampshire has been a battleground state.

Those 12 small, non-competitive states have a combined population of about 11.4 million and have a total of 40 electoral votes, National Popular Vote advocates note. Meanwhile, the battleground state of Ohio has about 11.5 million people and candidates trip over themselves to court its 20 electoral votes. A national popular vote would make a vote cast in a small state as important as a vote cast in Ohio or anywhere else, advocates say.

Now, I don’t think this takes into account the fact that candidates might still gravitate to the big coastal population centers not only for raw numbers but because major television markets provide more advertising bang for the campaign buck. It also doesn’t take into account the cutting-edge, grassroots ground game that Barack Obama brought this year, putting boots on the street and money on the airwaves in several previously ignored states.

Still, it’s an interesting proposal and shows no sign of going away; Migden’s gone, but NPV reportedly is keeping all options on the table for the coming Legislative session.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Keep in mind that the main media at the moment, namely TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. So, if you just looked at TV, candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.

    For example, in California, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don’t campaign just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and those places don’t control the outcome (otherwise we wouldn’t have recently had governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger). A vote in Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles.

    If the National Popular Vote bill were to become law, it would not change the need for candidates to build a winning coalition across demographics. Any candidate who yielded, for example, the 21% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a “big city” approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would still have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn’t be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as voters in Ohio.

  • Sheila Robinson-Phillips

    Please do not compare the struggles of black men and women,of America, who have died for over a hundred years because of the color of their skin. Now these same people whom have hated blacks and killed blacks want to compare Prop. 8 to their struggle. These are the same people whom fought against blacks for years not for our sexuality but for the color of their skin. People have a choice to decide whom they want to sleep with but black men and women didn’t have a choice and it’s a big difference. So Josh Richman, people in the media and the Bay Area New Group have no right to compare the two. The people voted Yes on Prop 8 and thats the way it should stand. Stop trying to make people except what they didn’t vote for. Prop 8 LOST! Stop trying to compare the black struggle to the gay struggle because we’re talking about sex, not color. Stop comparing the struggles of a black men to the struggles of two gay doctors who love each other, that make over $500,000 a year or more to our struggles of color. Get a Clue! Sheila

  • Josh Richman

    Um… wow. First of all, Sheila, I think you posted your comment to the wrong item, as your complaint doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Electoral College.

    Secondly, I never said I equated the gay-marriage struggle to the civil rights movement; many No on 8 activists feel that way, but I think they were wrong (and I think they realize that now) to assume African-Americans would automatically agree. If there’s a case to be made for it, it wasn’t made very well in this election.

    Third and finally, I think those who do believe the struggles are similar would say it’s not a matter of sex, or of color, or of sexual orientation; the similarity lies in seeing a group of people ostracized and denied fundamental rights simply because of who they are. And that’s the one place in which I must respectfully disagree with you: Sexual orientation isn’t a choice, it’s simply who someone is.

  • Al Barrs

    Stupid Democrat political control idea!

    This is just another socialist democrat strategy to engineer a Democrat government dictated completely by democrat controlled large east and west states.

    This is similar to the pro-industry factions in the mid-1800s that engineered a strategy to pack the U.S. House of Representatives and control Congress and the presidency so tax laws could be passed favorable to northeastern manufacturing states and punitive to agriculture states for funds to build northeastern industrialist’s great American Industrial Revolution with the objective to control world commerce from the northeast U.S.A. at the expense of the agriculture states and their agriculture industries and foreign trading partners… That pro-industry faction intended to and did completely cut the agriculture states out of all future legislative action. That strategy went up in flames when the U.S. Government attempted to use military force to force agriculture states back into the Union and back on the Union tax rolls at gunpoint.

  • JohnW

    So, what you are arguing, in effect, is that voters in red states should count more than those in blue states.

    This interstate compact approach is unlikely to go anywhere. GOP electoral college skulduggery stands a far better chance of happening, perhaps as early as 2016.

    Their idea is to have selective states (those that tend to vote Democratic for president but have Republican-controlled legislatures) start splitting the electoral vote based on each congressional district rather than based on the traditional winner-take-all system used by all states except for two very small states (Nebraska and Maine). That would guarantee that the GOP candidate would get some electoral votes in states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida even when the popular vote in those states goes to the Democrat. Mind you. this has nothing to do with principle. If it did, they would also be proposing to split the electoral vote in states that nearly always vote Republican for president but still elect some Democrats to Congress — Texas being the most notable example.

    If the Republicans go this route, it is almost certain that we will frequently have presidential elections in which the popular vote and electoral college vote diverge. If you think people are angry about government and politics now, just wait until it becomes routine for the popular vote winner to be the loser.