Popular Vote Partisanship

You'll never guess what's standing in the way of efforts to select the president using the popular vote: partisan politics. Last year, a few states ...
by | February 15, 2007

Popular You'll never guess what's standing in the way of efforts to select the president using the popular vote: partisan politics.

Last year, a few states started considering the idea of forming an interstate compact where they would all award their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner (but only if enough states joined for the compact states to be able to decide who wins the Electoral College). This looked like a clever way for states to effectively kill the Electoral College without federal approval.

This year, the idea has been introduced in 46 legislatures, but don't expect the red and blue maps to disappear anytime soon. The obstacle is that, though many Democrats support the idea, almost all Republicans oppose it.

So far, the North Dakota House, Montana Senate and Colorado Senate have voted on the popular vote plan. The bills were rejected in Montana and North Dakota, despite support from the vast majority of Democrats, because a grand total of five Republicans voted for the legislation. In Colorado the bill passed, but without a single Republican vote. Democrats don't have nearly enough power in state governments to get this effort off the ground without help from Republicans.

Why has the popular vote become a partisan topic?

Partisanship never needs a reason, but in this case there are two. The obvious one is that the 2000 presidential election turned Democrats against the Electoral College.

Less obvious: The 31 states carried by Bush in '04 averaged 9.2 electoral votes. Kerry's 19 states and Washington, D.C. averaged 12.6 electoral votes. Since the Electoral College gives greater weight to smaller states (even the least populous states start with three votes), current state voting patterns give Republicans an advantage, one they don't intend to relinquish.

Still, the popular vote isn't an issue that only can be viewed through a partisan lens. If states were really serving their individual self-interest, populous states that aren't competitive in presidential elections -- California, New York and Texas -- would get on board. Those states, despite all their people, serve only as fundraising hubs in presidential politics today.

On the other hand, small states, especially small swing states (New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and, yes, Colorado) lose power with the popular vote. Even the populous swing states -- Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- wouldn't be as influential if votes in all 50 states counted equally. Therefore, if each state focuses on its own interest, this idea isn't going anywhere.

So what perspective would get the compact rolling? Legislatures and governors would have to embrace the irony of states getting to decide how the head of the federal government is picked (a finger in the eye for REAL ID, NCLB and every other federal mandate?) and ignore the irony that their decision would effectively remove states as relevant units in the presidential selection process.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer | mailbox@governing.com