Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Don't blame me... I'm not from anywhere

I'll assume most of us remember the popular bumpersticker slogan, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts." I think the sentiment first started appearing on Massachusetts Liberal Mobile bumpers sometime in 1973. Richard Nixon's landslide in 1972 had missed only one state, ours —Massachusetts was the one state in the Union not to popularly elect Nixon, but as more and more of Nixon's perversions of power came to light after his election and the country was compelled to come to terms with the downside of its decision, our standing as a sole dissenting voice (along with the District of Columbia) became a matter of pride rather than chagrin.

I'm reminded of this when I read the MWDN editorial "Home Stretch for the NPV" in support of a measure passed by the Massachusetts legislature and now waiting on the Governor's signature —a measure that would out maneuver the Electoral College (and the U.S. Constitution) with the state's membership in an interstate compact that would in effect put in place a National Popular Vote for the presidency.

I'm just reminded that there are things more precious in a democracy than siding with the winner.

In every argument on behalf of the NPV Compact I encounter, that fact seems lost on people. They argue for their vote to "count" or to "matter" it must side with the winner. That vote for McGovern in 1972, those votes in years past for Stevenson, for Goldwater, for Gore or even Nader simply didn't matter or mean anything as they were too few to effect the desired result. They acknowledge no layers of meaning to our electoral process beyond the popular result —the popularity contest.

I submit that they are mistaken.

My sense of it is that an NPV that dispensed with the structure of the Electoral College in its entirety would not improve our politics one bit. Rather it would serve to atomize the American voting public and only further disaffect them from the debate on the level where it matters most, not among the candidates having it out in thirty second advertising spots and media orchestrated contests —contests of resources and package design —but on the scale of community —on the scale of neighbor to neighbor with a stake in how a neighborhood votes, how a district or how a state votes.

The debate that matters is the one we have among ourselves.

As a means to an end, the legislation now before the Governor would effect a novel change in the name of election reform, it would empower the Secretary of State to instruct the electors who represent our Commonwealth in the Electoral College to vote contrary to results of our own popular election if those results don't happen to jive with the national popular vote tally.

Proponents of this measure argue that it insures that a vote will "matter" or "count" no matter where it's cast —no matter where you live. I just think the opposite is true, that a vote that comes from anywhere comes from nowhere —and becomes so anonymous as to mean next to nothing at all.

I don’t disagree with certain of the sentiments or intentions behind the bill —not much anyway. We are all better off when the presidency is held by the popular choice. But where the folks who have put this together smelled smoke and suspected fire, they’ve gone and designed a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline.

Were we to have the kind of close contest where the electoral and popular results were potentially at odds under this “compact” we would have the decisive mass of Electoral College votes balanced on results being challenged not just in a few counties in Florida or Ohio or Chicago. The scrutiny and suspicion and games of counter accusation would be countrywide without any ordered way of resolving them and the whole of the election would revolve about (and be put in doubt) with suspicions of six fingered countings from every corner. This bill tries to effect the profound constitutional change of adopting a NPV without bothering with the civic culture or systemic infrastructure that would be truly necessary for it to work. It assumes those things will just sort themselves out.

Yup, this bill is essentially firefighting with gasoline —having chosen to wear a blindfold.


toto said...

The current winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states ensures that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. It would no longer matter who won a state. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

Votes cast in Massachusetts for the Republican presidential candidate will be counted towards his or her national total. Republican votes for president and will matter and be counted in "blue states" and Democratic votes will matter and be counted in "red states."

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Maine -- 77%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 74% , Massachusetts -- 73%, Minnesota -- 75%, New York -- 79%, Washington -- 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

toto said...

The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

A nationwide recount would not happen. We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election. The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires. The larger the number of voters in an election, the smaller the chance of close election results.

Recounts in presidential elections would be far less likely to occur under a national popular vote system than under the current state-by-state winner-take-all system (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each separate state).

In fact, if the President were elected from a single nationwide pool of votes, one would expect a recount once in 332 elections, or once in 1,328 years.

Based on a recent study of 7,645 statewide elections in the 26-year period from 1980 through 2006 by FairVote, the probability of a recount is 1 in 332 elections (23 recounts in 7,645 elections). Thus, with 420 statewide races on the ballot in 2006, there was one statewide recount (the Vermont State Auditor's race). Similarly, there was one recount in 2004 (the Washington state governor) and one in 2008 (the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota).

Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all system, there are 51 separate opportunities for recounts in every presidential election. Thus, our nation's 56 presidential elections have really been 2,084 separate state-level elections. In this group of 2,084 separate elections, there have been five seriously disputed counts. The current system has repeatedly created artificial crises in which the vote has been extremely close in particular states, while not close on a nationwide basis. Note that five seriously disputed counts out of the 2,084 separate state-level elections is closely in line with the historically observed probability of 1 in 332.

A national popular vote would reduce the probability of a recount from five instances in 56 presidential elections to one instance in 332 elections (that is, once in 1,328 years).

A disappointed presidential candidate already has the statutory ability to demand a recount in 41 states. And, the candidates have additional legal methods to obtain a recount in most of the remaining states. Any differences among the laws of the states would have no impact on a presidential election operated under the National Popular Vote compact.

A recount is not an unimaginable horror or logistical impossibility. A recount is a recognized contingency that is occasionally required (about once in 332 elections). All states routinely make arrangements for a recount in advance of every election. The personnel and resources necessary to conduct a recount are indigenous to each state. A state's ability to conduct a recount inside its own borders is unrelated to whether or not a recount may be occurring in another state.

The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

A single national pool of votes is the way to drastically reduce the likelihood of recounts and eliminate the artificial crises produced by the current system.

United World Poets said...

good blog post, the voting system needs to be better