Friday, October 12, 2012

Traditional EC vs. NPV

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.


  1. .The National Popular Vote bill would change
    existing state winner-take-all laws that award all of a state’s electoral votes
    to the candidate who get the most popular votes in each separate state (not
    mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), to a
    system guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes for, and the
    Presidency to, the candidate getting the most popular votes in the entire
    United States.


    The bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state
    control of elections. It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will
    matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with
    the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.


    Under National Popular Vote, every vote,
    everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential
    election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count.
    The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the
    270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes
    guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC
    wins the presidency.

    nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way
    presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided
    battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state
    winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not
    receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami
    do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.


    itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their
    allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the
    political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When
    and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.


    With National Popular Vote,
    when every vote is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential
    candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren't so well
    liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense
    for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to
    try it in Wyoming or Vermont.


    candidates currently do everything within their power to raise as much money as
    they possibly can from donors throughout the country. They then allocate the
    money that they raise nationally to places where it will do the most good
    toward their goal of winning the election.


    doesn't grow on trees. The fact that candidates would spend their money more
    broadly (that is, in all 50 states and DC) would not, in itself, loosen up the
    wallet of a single donor anywhere in the country. Candidates will continue to
    try to raise as much money as economic considerations permit. Economic
    considerations by donors determines how much money will be available, not the
    existence of an increases number of places where the money might be spent.


    the current system, in 2008, they spent 
    more than two-thirds of their time and money in just six closely divided
    battleground states; 80% in just nine states; and 99% in just 16 states. That's
    precisely what they should do in order to get elected with the current system,
    because the voters of two-thirds of the states simply don't matter. Candidates
    have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the
    concerns of voters in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.  Over 85 million voters, 200 million
    Americans, are ignored.


    every vote mattered throughout the United States, as it would under a national
    popular vote, candidates would reallocate their time and the money they raise.

  2. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of
    awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since
    enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the conventions, will
    not reach out to about 80% 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

    Presidential candidates concentrate
    their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground"
    states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about
    the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win.
    9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012
    election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 9 states
    and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10
    most rural states will matter, as usual. About 80% of the country will be
    ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and
    17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene
    than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their
    campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO,
    FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of
    the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates
    concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over
    80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.


    80% of the states and people have
    been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That's
    more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where
    voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.


    The number and population of
    battleground states is shrinking


    Policies important to the citizens
    of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to
    ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.


    A shift of a few thousand voters in
    one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13
    presidential elections since World War II. 
    Near misses are now frequently common. 
    There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections
    (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the
    White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more)
    popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have
    defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3
    million votes.  



    presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated,
    or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of
    evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and
    enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, 
    not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.


    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated
    party activists, who vote as rubberstamps for
    presidential candidates.  In the current
    presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the
    winners of their state. This is not what the Founding Fathers intended.


    The Founding
    Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to
    vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the
    vote of their citizens.


    Neither of the two
    most important features of the current system of electing the President
    (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method)
    are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they
    went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.


    In 1789, in the
    nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states,
    only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three
    states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.


    The current 48
    state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state's
    electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a
    particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or
    the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not
    mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional
    Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers
    make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all


    The constitutional wording does not
    encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method
    for awarding the state's electoral votes.


    As a result of
    changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for
    presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements
    for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used
    by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method
    of awarding electoral votes over the years

  4. The U.S. Constitution specifically permits diversity of
    election laws among the states because it explicitly gives the states control
    over the conduct of presidential elections (article II) .  The Founding Fathers in the U.S. Constitution
    permit states to conduct elections in varied ways.  The National Popular Vote compact is
    patterned directly after existing federal law and preserves state control of
    elections and requires each state to treat as "conclusive" each other
    state's "final determination" of its vote for President. 

    Current federal law (Title 3, chapter 1, section 6 of the
    United States Code) requires the states to report the November popular vote
    numbers (the "canvas") in what is called a "Certificate of
    Ascertainment." They list the electors and the number of votes cast for
    each.  The Congress meets in joint
    session to count the electoral votes reported in the Certificates of
    Ascertainment. You can see the Certificates of Ascertainment for all 50 states
    and the District of Columbia containing the official count of the popular vote
    at the NARA web site.

    There is nothing incompatible
    between differences in state election laws and the concept of a national
    popular vote for President. That was certainly the mainstream view when the
    U.S. House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment in 1969 for a
    national popular vote by a 338–70 margin. That amendment retained state control
    over elections.

    The 1969 amendment was endorsed by
    The American Bar Association, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and
    various members of Congress who later ran for Vice President and President such
    as then-Congressman George H.W. Bush, then-Senator Bob Dole, and then-Senator
    Walter Mondale.


    The proposed 1969 constitutional
    amendment provided that the popular-vote count from each state would be added
    up to obtain the nationwide total for each candidate. The National Popular Vote
    compact does the same.


    Under the current system, the electoral votes from all 50 states are
    comingled and simply added together, irrespective of the fact that the
    electoral-vote outcome from each state was affected by differences in state
    policies, including voter registration, ex-felon voting, hours of voting,
    amount and nature of advance voting, and voter identification requirements.


    Under both the current system and
    the National Popular Vote compact, all of the people of the United States are
    impacted by the different election policies of the states. Everyone in the
    United States is affected by the division of electoral votes generated by each
    state.  The procedures governing
    presidential elections in a closely divided battleground state (e.g., Florida
    and Ohio) can affect, and indeed have affected, the ultimate outcome of
    national elections



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