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Christian Smith-Socaris on March 23, 2009 - 11:30am
National Popular Vote Advancing Across the States
Our presidential election system - where a handful of states determine the winner and the candidate with the most support does not always win - is perhaps the most widely recognized symbol these days of how far we still remain from a free and equal democracy in which all voters have their voices equally heard. Fixing our dysfunctional Electoral College system by enacting an agreement among the states to implement a national popular vote (NPV) is a key priority for PSN and other progressive groups across the nation. In today's Dispatch we outline recent developments in the movement for a national popular vote, as well as the key reasons that NPV remains a crucial reform for progressives, for states, and for the nation as a whole.
Key Movement of NPV Bills This Session
Passage of NPV bills has begun at a healthy pace this session. New Mexico's House was the first legislative chamber to pass the National Popular Vote Bill in 2009. Now five other state legislative chambers have joined in just the past month, bringing the total to six.
Passing NPV for the first time - The Houses of Representatives in New Mexico, Oregon, and Colorado.
Passing NPV for the second time - The Arkansas House and the Vermont and Washington Senates.
Colorado - with an 8.95% margin of victory in the last presidential election - is the most competitive state to move NPV through a legislative chamber this session. Despite their status as a putative "swing state," legislators in the Colorado House have figured out that even if you are one of the lucky states that manage to get attention under the current system, it doesn't mean that the system itself is working. As Rep. Andy Kerr noted, "We're trying to move from battleground states in each presidential election, and move toward every single voter becoming a battleground voter."
Four states (Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois) have passed NPV into law; 25 state legislative chambers in all have now passed the bill as well.
National Popular Vote, Inc.
FairVote - Presidential Elections Reform Program
Common Cause - Electing Our President with National Popular Vote
Progressive States Network - National Popular Vote
National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
NPV: Making Every State a High Turnout Battleground State
Aside from the common-sense justice of assuring that the candidate receiving the most votes becomes president, the key reason national popular vote has gained support is a recognition that it can increase voter turnout in the majority of states neglected by national campaigns. State leaders committed to expanding participation in our elections are increasingly making enactment of NPV a priority.
Traditional Battleground States Remain Candidates' Focus: Despite early claims by both major party candidates in 2008 that they would seek to run campaigns in a significantly greater number of states than in recent elections, 15 states received more than 98% of all campaign spending during the peak season before the election. This was exactly the same number of states receiving that percentage of total spending as four years earlier.
The Battleground Continues to Shrink: Going into the 2008 elections the number of states where there is near a balance in party enrollment continued to shrink. Only 16 states had less than a 5% difference between the two major parties in 2008, down from 18 in 2004 and 32 states in 1992. The presidential election results show an even narrower battleground with only six states won by less than 5% and 16 by less than 10%. In 2004 there were 11 states where the margin of victory was within 5% and 21 within 10%. The 2004 election was less competitive than the election before it as well.
Former Battlegrounds Begin to Recognize Benefits of NPV: As the battleground shrinks, states that just a short time ago were benefiting from the Electoral College system are finding that they've swung too far to the Democrats to be competitive in the presidential election.
- Michigan - As we discussed in a previous Dispatch, many eyebrows were raised when former battleground state, Michigan, was left to twist in the wind by the GOP this winter as automakers sought loans from the federal government to avoid bankruptcy. Soon afterward the Michigan House passed NPV with wide bipartisan support.
- New Mexico - Given that President Obama won New Mexico by a 15% margin and the changing demographics of the state, New Mexico's status as a swing state is probably a thing of the past. And while some in the state still believe the presidential candidates will come knocking next time, over 60% of the members of the House voted in favor of NPV.
Turnout Continues to be Higher in Battleground States: Average turnout in the 15 most competitive states was 6% higher than in the rest of the states for the 2008 general election. This is down from the difference in 2004, likely because of the highly motivated electorate, many of whom wanted to vote for the first African-American candidate even if they were not in a competitive state. But even given this enthusiasm, over a third of states saw turnout actually fall from 2004.
FairVote - Presidential Election Inequality
FairVote - The Shrinking Battleground
FairVote - 2008's Shrinking Battleground and Its Stark Impact on Campaign Activity
National Popular Vote, Inc - State by State Polling
Key Arguments for Progressives Supporting NPV
PSN has been a strong supporter of the national popular vote because of the benefits it provides to progressives legislators, states and the nation as a whole. What follows is a brief rundown of the key arguments that we think make NPV a winning proposition.
Overwhelming Popular Support in Every State: While we've long known that NPV is a wildly popular reform nationally, with support from close to three-quarters of voters, National Popular Vote Inc. has recently commissioned individual polls in over half the states. What they show is that support for NPV is both strong and broad. Over two-thirds of voters support NPV in every state polled, and the average level of support is roughly 75%. Even state where many would assume support to be low, such as battleground states and small states, show very strong support. Support is also strong across parties, races and genders.
- Popular in Battleground States - We have polling from nine of the 16 states within a 10% margin in the last election. The strength of support in these states ranges from 68% (Colorado) to 78% (Florida).
- Popular in Small States - Five of the 12 smallest states have been polled and support ranges from 69% (New Hampshire) to 75% (Rhode Island and Vermont).
- NPV is almost assuredly the most popular election reform currently being debated across the country (and likely one of the most popular policy ideas in any field).
Organizational Support Grows: The NAACP has endorsed NPV because the current Electoral College system marginalizes minority voters, the vast majority of whom live in spectator states. This has led national leaders to ignore critical issues of importance to the minority community, especially civil rights. [See below for other endorsers from the civil rights community].
Democratic Ideals: One person, one vote is a bedrock principle of our democracy, but it is only a mirage in the current presidential election process. While every citizen can cast a ballot for president, because of our state-by-state, winner-take-all system, only those voters in swing states have a real chance to impact the outcome with their individual votes. In the vast majority of states, the election results are predetermined by lopsided party enrollment. A president who is supposed to represent us all is in fact selected by a few.
A system where the popular vote loser can claim the presidency is not a truly representative democracy. No event seems more out of place with our modern concept of democracy than declaring the candidate without the greatest support the winner. This is at the core of popular distaste for the current system. The understanding that this system therefore does not live up to our ideals cuts across party lines as evidenced by the poll results in the states and nationally.
Turnout: Because so many states don't matter in the presidential election, many voters make a rational choice not to participate. Research shows that the most important contributor to high turnout is electoral competition. Under the current Electoral College system, there is essentially no electoral competition in presidential races in a large majority of states.
When turnout falls, progressive candidates suffer. This is because the electorate is skewed toward white, wealthy, and higher-educated individuals. The less voters there are, the greater the skew in favor of conservative candidates and the less viable progressive candidates become. This hurts the progressive movement across the country.
- One example of how a lack of participation among voters hurts progressive reforms is that over 95% of voters have health insurance, while less than 85% of the general population do. Clearly, bringing in voters who lack insurance will increase the pressure to reform our health care system and provide coverage for all Americans.
Civil Rights: The critical issue of civil rights has drifted out of the national dialogue as the battlegrounds have shifted away from states with high percentages of minority voters. During the civil rights era, the battleground states were concentrated in the South, and this was part of what put civil rights front and center in the national dialogue. However, as the South has become largely controlled by a single party, civil rights issues have faded from prominence.
- As the FairVote report, Presidential Election Inequality, details, just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos live in the twelve closest battleground states from 2004. Therefore, roughly 80% of non-white voters might as well not exist in the presidential election.
- Because of the importance of increasing candidate focus on civil rights concerns, key leadership organizations representing communities of color, including the NAACP, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Latino Congress, and the Asian American Action Fund, have all endorsed a national popular vote.
Small States: The electoral vote advantage that small states receive has been rendered meaningless by the intense focus on battleground states. The Founders intended that while large states would have more electoral votes, small states would get a benefit in the Electoral College so that they wouldn’t become just marginal players in the selection of the president. In essence the votes of small state voters would be a bit stronger than the votes of large state voters. However, the intentions of the founders have been completely subverted by the current system. Because small states, with the exception of New Hampshire, are not battleground states, candidates continue to ignore them and the electoral benefit they receive under the constitution is no remedy to this problem.
Rural Voters: Rural voters lose power under the current system. Because of the winner-take-all systems across the country, rural voters are almost always outnumbered by more populous urban and suburban areas. Therefore, the current system prevents rural voters from creating a voting block within most states and across the states. This means that on a national level the concerns shared by rural voters can be ignored. What we saw in last year’s Democratic Primaries and Caucuses is that rural voters do matter under a proportional system. In fact, rural voters were courted intensely and determined the outcome in key states.
Constitutional Soundness: The states have complete power over how they apportion their presidential electors, and states have used a variety of systems. While some believe that the current state-by-state, winner-take-all systems have persisted since our founding, history shows quite the opposite. In the early years of the republic states switched from proportional to winner-take-all systems freely. Even today two states (Maine and Nebraska) divide their electoral votes according to the popular vote winner in each congressional district.
Disputed State Results: Our current presidential elections can be thrown into chaos by a close, contested result in a battleground state, a situation much less likely under a national popular vote. Because a very close result is more likely among a smaller group of voters, the possibility of a Florida 2000 style electoral meltdown is much less likely under NPV. That is because the margin of victory nationwide is much larger than it is in individual states. While the Florida 2000 election was decided by less than 600 votes, the national margin of victory was in the millions.
As the presidential election battleground continues to narrow, and the negative consequences of the current Electoral College system become more apparent, more and more states are seeing a national popular vote as the obvious solution. The whole nation suffers when voters know that their voice doesn't matter. However, progressives in particular should be concerned about the profoundly negative effects that the current system has for many of our highest priorities including civil rights, health care for all, and increasing political participation.
With public opinion strongly on our side, and a dwindling number of states relevant in the presidential election, we have the wind at our backs as we make a strong push for every vote to count, and through the voters, every state as well.
FairVote - Organizations Endorsing NPV
National Popular Vote, Inc. - Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote
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