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College cliffhanger that we had in 2000 and 2004, but there are those who still believe the EC as it stands is an outdated relic.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.