Why National Popular Vote Is a Bad Idea

The appeal of NPV is the simplicity of its message. The danger of NPV is that it will undermine the complex and vital underpinnings of American democracy.
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This blog post is a joint effort with Leslie Francis, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

As the National Popular Vote (NPV) movement steps up its effort to impose a direct election for president, attempting to enlist states with a sufficient number of electors to constitute a majority (268) and to bind them to the winner of the national popular vote, those states considering the proposal might first reflect on the nightmare aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.

Because there was a difference of less than 1,000 tabulated votes between George W. Bush and Al Gore in one state, Florida, the nation watched as 6 million votes were recounted by machine, several hundred thousand were recounted by hand in counties with differing recount standards, partisan litigators fought each other in state and federal courts, the secretary of state backed by the majority of state legislators (all Republicans) warred with the state's majority Democratic judiciary -- until 37 days after the election the U.S. Supreme Court, in a bitterly controversial 5-4 decision effectively declared Bush the winner.

That nightmare may seem like a pleasant dream if NPV has its way. For under its plan, the next time the U.S. has very close national vote, a recount would not be of six million votes in one state but of more than 130 million votes in all states and the District of Columbia, all with their own rules for conducting a recount.

The horror of a potential national recount is only one of the dangers direct presidential elections poses. Among the others:

• By its very size and scope, a national direct election will lead to nothing more than a national media campaign, which would propel the parties' media consultants to inflict upon the entire nation what has been heretofore limited to the so-called battleground states: an ever-escalating, distorted arms race of tit-for-tat unanswerable attack advertising polluting the airwaves, denigrating every candidate and eroding citizen faith in their leaders and the political process as a whole.

•Because a direct election would be, by definition, national and resource allocation would be overwhelmingly dominated by paid television advertising, there would be little impetus for grass-roots activity. That, in turn, would likely diminish voter turnout.

•Similarly, because a national campaign mandates a national message, there would also be a smaller incentive for coalition-building or taking into account the characteristics, needs and desires of citizens in differing states and regions.

•NPV supporters claim, accurately, that a direct election for president would reduce or eliminate the possibility that a fringe candidate (like a Ralph Nader or Ron Paul) winning five percent or less of the vote in a single state could serve to defeat a major party candidate from the same side of the political spectrum. But the much greater danger to American democracy is that direct elections may make it possible for a president to be elected by no more than 30 percent of the vote, regardless of his or her suitability for office, so long as there is sufficient money and a clever media advisor behind the effort.

The issue raised by the National Popular Vote campaign is fundamental: What kind of a democracy should America be? Their answer is simple: one in which every citizen's vote is equal to every other citizen's vote and one in which the winner of the presidential popular vote, no matter how small his or her percentage is of those who voted, would be elected.

The alternative view of democracy is more complex; it is one that includes but is not limited to the pursuit of equality. That view of democracy recognizes the existence and desirability of organized interests and enshrines that principle under the concept of pluralism. It understands that while the nation is one union, it is also an amalgam of varying experiences and perspectives arrived at via the settings and unique problems surrounding those who live in different places, and that these differences fall within the broad rubric of federalism. E pluribus unum -- out of many, one. It is our national motto and is so for a reason.

It sees a healthy and vibrant democracy needing the underpinnings of civil society that rests on the sustained and active engagement of the citizenry and promotes approaches that seek to maximize that involvement. It seeks to be a bulwark against mass hysteria and the hysteria created by mass media. It knows that a majoritarianism that produces a plurality is not the voice of a majority of the citizenry. The Electoral College system, however imperfect, serves this broader view of democracy.

Imperfect, because its modern-day blessings -- enhancing coalition building, pluralism, federalism and grass-roots participation -- are enjoyed only by a minority of states (in any given presidential election 18 or 20), where the battle for electoral votes is competitive for both major parties. The lack of competition and campaigning in a majority of states owes itself not to the existence of the Electoral College's indirect method of choosing presidents but rather to the winner-take-all method of choosing electors in all but two states. If a party knows either that it can't win a single elector in a state or has an easy road to winning all of them, it sends its resources to where it has a competitive chance..

There are alternatives to winner-take-all that do not involve abandoning the positive aspects of the Electoral College. All states could adopt the system that now exists in Maine and Nebraska, where all but two electors are chosen by congressional district, and the other two go to the statewide winner. Or states might explore what was recently proposed in Colorado -- that electors be allocated in proportion to each candidate's share of the popular vote above a certain threshold. Either would provide a reason for both parties to compete in most states because there would be electors to win. Either would likely produce an electoral vote count closer to the popular vote. And unlike direct elections, either would provide an incentive for grass-roots activity, coalition building and enhanced citizen participation.

National Popular Vote proponents argue that the United States has had four presidential elections in which the plurality winner of the popular vote was not chosen as president. It is also true that no president since 1824 has received the votes of a majority of the eligible voters and 18 presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, John. F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were elected with less than a majority of the votes cast. In each instance the republic has survived, and democracy has prospered despite the challenges presented. It is not at all clear that it would similarly prosper under the direct election regime being pushed by NPV.

The appeal of NPV is the simplicity of its message. The danger of NPV is that it will undermine the complex and vital underpinnings of American democracy. NPV is more than a third of the way to its goal. The time to stop its momentum is now.

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