Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why a national popular vote is good for democracy

Originally posted by Executive Director Carol Rose on's "On Liberty" blog.

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always been a believer in one-person, one-vote. That principle -- along with the secret ballot and the notion that the person who gets the most votes should win -- is the very essence of democracy.

So it was welcome news to hear that the Massachusetts House voted, 113 to 35, to support the adoption of a national popular vote in Massachusetts. Now it goes to the state Senate, which should do the same.

The idea of a national popular vote is simple: it guarantees the election of the presidential candidate who receives the most popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It does this by creating an interstate compact among states to award all electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.

nothing particularly revolutionary about the national popular vote. After all, the Constitution (Article II, Section I) gives state legislatures the power to decide how to apportion their state's electoral votes, and most states already award the winner of the popular vote all electoral votes. Nor is the use of the interstate compact system new: there are hundreds of such compacts, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or compacts that protect states' rights to water.

Why not have an interstate compact to ensure representative democracy?

Still, adopting of the national popular vote compact would change things -- for the better. The "winner take all" rule in most states currently means that presidential candidates focus nearly off of their resources on "battleground" states, while ignoring most states and voters during campaigns. In 2008, more than 98% of all campaign spending and events focused on 15 states representing barely a third of the population. The rest of us were simply spectators.

Adopting clear rules also would prevent the discomforting situation where the Electoral College awards the presidency to the candidate who lost in the national popular vote. This has happened more often than you might think, including the Bush-Gore election of 2000.

A few people argue that extending the vote equally to everyone will undermine the traditions set forth by our Founding Fathers. But not all of the traditions embraced by our founding fathers are worthy of our respect. After all, these were the guys who denied the vote to women, people of color, and people who didn't own property. And they were not above manipulating the system in their favor. Did you know that, early on, the Electoral College counted all those people (including slaves and women) in determining a state's Electoral College votes even while denying those same people the vote? They did this to ensure that Virginia had more electoral votes than New York or Pennsylvania in 1800 despite its denial of the popular vote to nearly 40% of its population. No wonder our first four presidents were Virginians!

The Electoral College has been reformed over the years in lots of ways, usually for the better. In the early days, the runner-up in a presidential election became the vice president. The result was presidents who had opponents as their vice presidents (notably John Adams in the 1796 election). Imagine if Barack Obama had John McCain as his vice president…you have to admit that it would be highly dysfunctional (okay, it also would be highly entertaining, but definitely not good for effective governing).

Some reforms are worth adopting, particularly when they uphold long-standing principles that have served us well. One-person/one-vote is just such a principle, and the national popular vote compact is the way to guarantee it.


Ed said...

How would the compact force the states that did not join the compact to recount their votes if the margin of the national popular vote is less than 0.5%? there have been 4 presidential elections within this margin, which would spur an automatic recount in many states including mine for other elections (and currently for the presidential election as well). This is 9% of elections, or once every eleven elections. Seeing that it has happened four times, there needs to be an "out" for states if the election is this close. My suggestion is that if the national vote is within the margin that would spur an automatic recount within the state, that the state winner prevail.

Ed said...

One more related thought: should Massachusetts have voted against JFK if the national popular vote was shifted by 0.2%?

Ed said...

"No wonder our first four presidents were Virginians!"

Two Words: John Adams

Anonymous said...

It also guarantees the voice of the smaller states are overshadowed by the big states

Anonymous said...

Too bad that organization that claims to defend free speech censors comments.

Anonymous said...

We aren't a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. Check out for why Massachusetts SHOULD NOT embrace NPV>

kevin said...

We're not a constitutional democracy, we're a constitutional republic.

Democracy literally means "tyranny of the masses". That is, 50%+1 of the population can do anything that they want to the 50%-1. An example of Democracy was the popular persecution of the Jews in Europe leading up to, and culminating, in World War 2. That is, the Jews lost their rights because the majority of the people thought they shouldn't have any.

Democracy is evil.

In a Republic, Government is limited in powers and are barred from violating citizen's rights, no matter how many people want to, without due process.