I keep an eye out every election-cycle in the U.S. for attacks on the Electoral College; this time around things have been rather quiet, but Steve Chapman recently had a column criticizing the Electoral College and advocating the National Popular Vote plan. Now, his criticisms of the EC have no cogency, but his advocacy of the NPV -- which is not to be confused with an actual national popular vote, which the plan does not provide -- is especially egregious.
(1) Chapman brings up the argument, which one gets every single time, that the EC is to blame for the fact that candidates focus on only battleground states. This is manifestly not true -- non-EC election systems do not avoid the battleground problem because it arises not from the election system but from the way campaigning works, so the most one could do is shift the emphasis from states to geographical regions. In a nation the size of the United States it will never be economical or even possible to campaign everywhere; people will campaign strategically. In the United States it is most natural to campaign by state anyway -- state boundaries are quite clear and fixed, it is relatively easy to get information about states as a whole, and political organizations, including parties, most naturally work at the state level -- but even if this were not so, active campaigning is necessarily confined to relatively few areas, leaving the rest to passive campaigning (national television appearance, local party organizations, etc.). This is, again, a necessary structural feature of campaigning, and this is intensified by the demand to campaign nationally in one of the world's largest countries -- fourth largest by area and third largest by population. We are by every metric huge -- there are too many people spread over too much of the globe for any evenhandedness to be genuinely viable at that level.
(2) Chapman also makes the common mistake in this area: he assumes we have actual national popular vote numbers. We do not. When people put together a 'popular vote', they are going on what states have turned in. But there is no standardized way of counting votes from state to state -- for instance, felons can vote in some states but not in others, some states use vote-gathering methods that are not accepted in other states, etc. This becomes relevant to the whole NPV idea: in order to have a genuine national popular vote you have to have a genuinely national way of collecting and counting them, so that what makes you eligible to vote in one place makes you eligible in another and that what counts as a legitimate vote in one place counts as a legitimate vote in another. The national numbers for the popular vote depend on treating the numbers turned in by the states as all commensurable, which they are not. We can know state popular vote totals; but we cannot compare across state lines except in a highly approximate way.
(3) Chapman: "Only for the most important office does that custom get cast aside — in favor of an antiquated system that the framers created without a clue how it would function." Since the Electoral College is less 'antiquated' than straight popular vote, and since the Framers actually had a pretty good idea how it would work (it was an adaptation of election systems that they knew quite well; the main sources of uncertainty were simply whether it could be made sustainable from election to election in the context of a republic), this is all empty rhetoric.
(4) And then we get to the National Popular Vote idea, which, again, is not a national popular vote. It is, in fact, just a form of the Electoral College system in which state election laws have gone insane. On the NPV system, states would be committing themselves in the Electoral College to preferring votes elsewhere to those cast by their own citizens. If State A doesn't allow felons to vote and State B does for civil rights reasons, then on the NPV plan, State A is committed to accepting as legitimate felons voting in in State B despite the fact that people in A exactly like those in B don't get to vote, and State B is committed to accepting as legitimate the election numbers coming out of State A, despite knowing quite well that the numbers are derived in part on what people in State B regard as a civil rights violation, and that there are potential voters in A whose votes are not getting counted despite the fact that they would count in B. This is an absurd situation. Moreover, NPV guarantees that states with well-thought-out election laws and well-run election systems are held hostage to those without. When, for instance, we had the problems with the Bush v. Gore election, the problems were all with the popular vote count of Florida. It only affected the Electoral College because Florida's own method of determining Electors is tied to its own popular vote count. Numbers can't be established for a 'national popular vote' (even one based on a fiction) under a state-by-state system like ours unless all the states have their act together. We know for a fact that this can't be guaranteed, and that a state can make a complete mess of things by poor collection methods, inconsistent vote-counting, and loopholes for voting fraud. And we also know for a fact that nobody can actually fix these problems except citizens of that state.
The point, in short, is that the only rational alternative to an Electoral College system -- which is highly effective as a state-by-state method of election -- is a genuine national popular vote system, which in our case requires taking election law out of the hands of the states and putting it entirely into the hands of a Federal agency. Bastardized systems like NPV are just not a serious option: they are EC reforms that fail to reform anything significant because they simply don't consider the actual logic of the system they claim to reform, elaborate symbolic gestures that talk about the importance of a national popular vote and do nothing to get one.
UPDATE: And in the comments below we see another reason to despise NPV advocates, beyond their complete inability to grasp basic facts about electoral process; as you can see in the comments, advocates just spam long passages of prepared text without serious regard for any actual argument. This is a tactic they've been trying for years now: boilerplate slimed over every post they can find that mentions the Electoral College or the National Popular Vote. Virtually all of the boilerplate, of course, is irrelevant to the argument given here (indeed, most of it is not even particularly relevant to election reform today), and much of the rest makes precisely the mistakes noted above. There is an additional mistake added: precisely the whole point of the Electoral College is that it is an aggregator that converts distinct state policies into commensurable Electoral votes -- Electoral College votes are commensurable because the Electoral College is structurally designed to make them so -- how they are arrived at is no more relevant than whether voters in the voting booth pick their candidates by deliberation or by coin-flipping. State popular votes are only structurally designed to be commensurable within a given state, and therefore any treatment of the additive sum of those vote totals as a 'national popular vote' is artificial and, as noted in (4) above, requires states to give preference to the laws of other states over their own. As I said: NPV doesn't fix anything in the Electoral College; it's just the Electoral College with insane state election laws.
Nonetheless, I'm glad the NPV spammers showed up: they show exactly what NPV is (which is why I'm not erasing it). It is a spammer's con, and has as much to do with serious election reform as Viagra spam has to do with serious health care reform.