Thursday, February 22, 2007

Push to make every voter equal and relevant to picking the president in Illinois and Missouri

From today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a good article on the National Popular Vote -- a state-based initiative to cast states' electoral votes not for the winner of each statewide popular vote but instead for the winner of the national popular vote.

State Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville, who sponsored a popular-vote bill in Illinois last year, sees the issue as one of fairness.

"It's one man, one vote," Holbrook said. "You can muddy the water all you want. If you think every voter is equal, then you support this."


Illinois state [Sen.] Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, is among those who support a popular-vote plan.

"From my standpoint as a state legislator, regardless of party affiliation, it's a disservice to Illinois to never see the Democratic or Republican candidate come through our state, and we don't get the benefits of their advertisements," Dillard said.
The bills in Illinois are SB 78 and HB 858. SB 78 is sponsored by Senator Jacqueline Collins and has 9 co-sponsors while HB 858 is sponsored by Representative Bob Molaro and has 26 co-sponsors (as of this morning).

To my mind, the dumbest thing about the status quo is that about 1/4 of the nation's voters participate in a vigorous presidential campaign while the rest of us do not. Remember October of 2004? If you wanted to help elect John Kerry or George Bush, you had to road trip. From the Chicago area, thousands of people drove to Wisconsin. In other parts of Illinois, people poured into Missouri and Iowa. That is patently absurd.

As Representative Holbrook said, if we want Illinois voters to be equally relevant to picking the president, then we need a national popular vote. Those who oppose a national popular vote are essentially supporting the status quo -- and that means, Illinois is completely ignored.

There are a few interesting angles to this debate I'd like to mention.

Some have argued that if we held a national popular vote, the cities would overwhelm the rest of the nation, and candidates would simply campaign in New York, LA, Chicago and Houston and then take over. Well, let's do the math.

There are 300 million people in the United States today.

How many people live in the biggest cities?

First, take a guess.

Would you say something like 40%? 35%?

By the way some people talk about the city vote dominating elections (particularly state legislators in other states, not Illinois), I'd assume those people would make those guesses.

Well, here are the population numbers of the biggest cities:

New York 8.1 million
Los Angeles 3.8 million
Chicago 2.8 million
Houston 2.0 million
Philadelphia 1.5 million

That's a total of 18.2 million people.

About 6 percent.

Not a tsunami of voters to overwhelm the nation.

Even if you take the top 50 cities by population (stopping at Arlington, Texas with 362,000 people), combined they have 45.9 million people or only 15.2 percent of the total population.

Good to keep in mind.

The second interesting point is what the Founders would think about this.

Well, lots of the Founders wanted a national popular vote. In fact, at the convention in Philadelphia, proposals to implement a national popular vote were debated and narrowly lost (6-5 in one vote, because delegates voted by state). The main reason why delegates didn't create a national popular vote is because in 1787, having a national census, much less reporting the results of a national election, was administratively impossible.

The other factor was that the slave states didn't want any elections at all, since they relied on their slaves to count as 3/5 of a person for apportionment purposes, and they had far fewer voters (white male landowners) than the free states. The Electoral College, based on Congressional apportionment, gave the slave states a lot more clout than their population entitled them to.

So, many of the Founders, particularly James Madison (known as the Father of the Constitution), James Wilson, Rufus King and Governor Morris (who wrote the final draft of the Constitution), supported a national popular vote from the start and would love to know that there's an effort to finally implement their vision.

Further, none of the Founders ever debated the Electoral College as currently practiced: a non-deliberative body generated from elections that disenfranchise 2/3 or 3/4 of the nation's voters from meaningful participation. Remember, the Founders thought that the Electoral College would actually meet and consider who would make the best President. That never happened.

So, Illinois is leading a push to make every voter equal and finally implement what more than 70% of all Americans consistently say they want in polls: a national popular vote for our president.

Full disclosure: I lobby for the National Popular Vote campaign in Illinois.


Bill Baar 10:41 AM  

I think a National Popular Vote means our Presidential elections will be waged in just a few of the major media markets.

A dollar spent in one of those is going to mean a lot more votes for a candidate.

I can't see how that's going make anyones vote more meaningful but it will mean candidates will have no economic drive to speak to wide geographic areas of the country.

The Electoral College was a concrete solution to the real problem of balancing power between States with large and small populations. It was a political solution to a real problem of Federalism.

The arguments for a Popular Vote always seem pretty vague, the problem unstated, and instead the arguements centered on a principle of making my vote more meaningful. (I already feel pretty meaningful and the last few elections drove home the point of voting.. you never know when your State could be the next Ohio or Florida.)

I think you need to give us a little more on the problem your trying to fix Dan.

I can't see the benefit of having candidates focus on the few regions with lots of voters and forsake the rest of the Republic. It just seems it would encourage more Rovian data-mining strategies as the margin of mobilizing your base in a high density region would have a higher political pay back, then appealing to voters accross a wider swath of geography.

I need more here than feeling meaningful.

the Other Anonymous,  10:47 AM  

If only one state takes this action, doesn't it make the state even less relevant in terms of a political campaign?

Let's say Illinois has a law that gives its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Illinois, by itself, does not have enough votes in play to make a difference. And, besides, if you're looking at national voting, a candidate would still do better by looking for votes that will help the candidate win both electoral votes and extra popular votes. So, this bill gives even more reason for presidential candidates to concentrate on votes in places like Florida and Ohio and ignore Illinois. Oh, and voters in Illinois just might become disillusioned because they feel their votes don't matter.

If you want to achieve voter equality, then the only way to do it is to abolish the electoral college and just go with the winner of the popular vote.

Rob Richie 11:32 AM  

The most recent post misses an essential element of the National Popular Vote plan. The agreement only goes into effect when it will guarantee election of the national popular vote winner. If Illinois and six other states adopt it this year, nothing changes in 2008. But if and when enough states pass it before 2012 that they collectively can guarantee election of the national popular vinner in all 50 states, then the agreement becomes active.

Thus, the policy choice here is crystal clear: a national popular vote for president where every vote is equal and every act of participation is equally significant or the current system that promotes essentially political apartheid -- a handful of states where voters matter because the vote happens to be close in those states and a majority of states (both big and small) where the voters mean absolutely nothing to the presidential campaigns.

A measure of that disturbing reality is that George Bush had the best-funded campaign in history in 2004, yet his campaign didn't poll a single voter outside of 17 states in the entire campaign, starting in 2002. His campaign was not going to be affected at all by the concerns and views of a supermajority of Americans.

The current system is a problem in search of a solution. We now have one that is in the best traditions of this country and honoring the goals of the framers on this issue, when they delegated to states the power to determine how best to run presidentia elections -- check out for more about the proposal and for more on what's wrong with the current system.

As a final aside, the current system is not all what the framers envisioned. Even in the fourth presidential election, in 1800, only two states awarded all their electoral votes to the popular vote winner in their state. There's nothing more "constitutional" about what states do now than what they could do with the National Popular Vote plan.

Pat Collins 12:37 PM  

A better solution would be that the state's percentage of it's electoral college vote are allocated based on how candidates did in that's state;s balloting.

Win a state by 51% of the vote, get 51% of it's electoral votes.

Rob Richie 1:07 PM  

Proportional allocation of electoral votes would create perverse impacts. Campaigning in most states would have no likely impact on electoral votes, so again you would have some swing states and mostly non-swing states. But the "swing states" would only swing two electoral votes, so a small population swing state would matter just as much as a big population state.

And at the end of the day, you can still have a national popular vote winner lose -- just as Gore would have lost under this system in 2000.

One-person, one-vote -- nothing wrong for that for electing our one national office!

Jeff Trigg 2:50 PM  

Isn't it great they are focusing on this instead of Illinois' worst in the world ballot access laws for independent candidates. Laws which were just ruled unconstitutional, btw.

If they can get rid of the gerrymandering, I like the idea that the winner of the state gets two electoral college votes, and they get the electoral college vote for each US House district they win.

Our democracy has much bigger problems than the electoral college. Gerrymandering and lack of political competition due to political discrimination should be a higher priority. But have fun trying to switch to the popular vote for President method.

Rob Richie 3:39 PM  

Getting rid of gerrymandering would not get rid of the fact that most districts are not competitive --- the root of lack of competition is the fact that most of the country tilts naturally toward one party or another. The congressional district system would also establish a huge partisan tilt, as in nationally even year, the Republican candidate would likely carry some 30-50 more congressional districts and 10 more states.

I don't see how Jeff thinks it's not a problem that voter turnout among people under 30 was nearly 65%in the swing states and less than 50% in the growing number of "spectator states" or how it's not a problem when the campaigns never factor in the views or interests of people in most states. There was a time when political equality meant something in America, and I hope that day is coming back soon.

This isn't the only thing to do to make our democracy work for more of us, but it sure is an essential building block.

ollie 4:42 PM  

One good thing about the way that things currently are:

we are spared all of those dreary presidential campaign commercials.

Bill Baar 4:55 PM  

It was a nice break Ollie...

I agree with Jeff Trigg...the gerrymandering within Illinois is a much bigger issue for me.

Look at Illinois's 4th and 17th districts... best thing we could do is stop that nonsense.

Jeff Trigg 7:41 PM  

Those are fair points Rob. You guys do some great work, so don't let my criticism belittle that.

I do think gerrymandering would lower the non-competitive congressional races from say, 95% to 85%, which does help a lot.

As for your under 30 voter turnout example, won't this just shift the areas where the turnout is low? Instead of swing states getting bigger turnout it would be dense population areas where the candidates are targeting more.

I guess that depends on what you think the root cause of low voter turnout is. It seems like you believe it's due to people feeling like their vote doesn't count. I'd tend to think it's more because they aren't being engaged and they don't feel involved or they don't like either of the candidates, as we just saw in IL.

Downstate IL could easily feel like their votes don't count since Cook County has practically half the population. Yet, the voter turnout is higher downstate. Perhaps IL really is that backwards, but I think a national popular vote would only shift turnout rates.

The same would hold true for electoral votes based on congressional districts, of course, so I can't argue that would really be much better.

It's either target the dense population areas with the national popular vote, or target the competitive congressional districts with the idea I shared, or target the swing states with the current system. Which method includes the most voters being targetted?

I don't have stats, but I would guess if we ended gerrymandering the congressional model would involve more people. One thing that appears certain is that no method is good at engaging everyone. That's why I don't think it's as big of a problem as you do, because it seems to me it will continue to be a problem regardless of which method is used. My mind can be changed, however.

That said, I also can't say I understand your view that Reps would benefit more with the congressional system, and if I did, perhaps you'd win me over.

But then I don't put as much importance into the Presidential race as I do state and local, where they have more impact on my life. Typically 50% of our General Assembly races are unopposed, and not lower than 40% the last 16 years. I'd much rather see local races drive voter turnout than the Presidential race, and I do think that would happen more if we ended gerrymandering and allowed political competition.

Rob Richie 10:44 PM  

Jeff -- When it's 50-50 in the national popular vote, the Republicans win a substantial greater number of congressional districts. That stems from the fact that Democratics margins are greater in cities than Republicans are in their strongholds. The hard numbers are that with the CD system, Bush would have won the 2000 presidential race by nearly 50 electoral votes even while losing the national popular vote.

What I'm not conveying clearly enough is that there is an absolute, total division between states right now. Most states don't matter at all to the campaigns -- literally not worth a dime unless it's a stamp on a fundraising request. If every vote were equal and every voter equally meaningful, everyone would be in play. Right now, Republicans don't win a state by Ohio by just focusing on the cities, right? And Democrats don't ignore a supporter in a Republican-leaning area -- no, you try to get your vote out wherever it is.

I'm all for other reforms you discuss. I sure as heck would like increased voter choice in local and legislative races and my organization FairVote does a lot of work in that area. But a National Popular Vote plan is a basic building block for a fair and just democracy in my opinion.

Anonymous,  3:07 AM  

Maybe the problem is not with our Electoral system but with weak political parties that are not competitive in any given state. Like this states republican party which has a corrupt leader that takes money from a corrupt democratic leader and is allowed to stay in his position. A republican party which runs moderate candidates like Topinka and pushes Gambling expansion which pushes it base from the party and then wonders why it continues to lose.

the Other Anonymous,  8:09 AM  

Welcome, Rob, to Illinoize. I appreciate your clarification of the proposals.

Even with the clarification, I'm still skeptical that a state-by-state (or even a collective state) solution will fix the problem of campaigns and candidates concentrating their resources in a handful of media markets, and that some parts of the country will be ignored. In fact, I think the additional proviso simply gives campaigns additional opportunities to game the system.

If you want to abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote, then you should just go ahead and amend the constitution. Keep in mind, though, that switching to the electoral vote means that purple states -- i.e., competitive states -- will be ignored in favor of lopsided states where mass turnout is the key.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger 11:25 PM  

Well, if the Electoral College is such a great idea, why hasn't any state implemented it for gubernatorial elections? Why hasn't any nation in the world implemented it for their executive elections? Remember when President Putin responded to American criticism of his anti-democratic moves to muzzle the press and strip provincial governments of power, and he pointed to the Electoral College as evidence that we're not practicing the democracy that we preach? In statewide elections in Illinois, rural areas are very important. Candidates spend a lot of resources on reaching out to rural voters. And the percentage of urban voters in Illinois is higher than the percentage of urban voters in the nation. So if we had a national popular vote for president, rural voters throughout the country would be important, because every voter would be equally relevant to electing the president. So purple states would get just as much attention as red states and blue states, just as purple counties get just as much attention as red counties and blue counties in statewide elections now.

Jeff Trigg 12:46 AM  

Good points Dan. Putin also pointed to our discriminatory and restrictive ballot access laws which are much worse in Illinois than they are in Putin's country. The Iranian President, of all people, also pointed out our awful ballot access laws. They were both right.

Your other points on rural versus urban being equally important assumes people are not voting because they believe their votes don't really matter. I tend to think it's because they are not being engaged and involved. I don't believe a national popular vote would engage or involve rural voters as much as urban voters, so I don't see a national popular vote as an improvement, only a shift of focus of the campaigns to urban areas away from swing states. Do you have any specific purple counties in Illinois as an example?

Anonymous,  2:34 PM  

I say absolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote, using a system of majority elections.

pol watcher,  8:17 AM  

Linking the Electoral Vote with winning a majority of a Congressional District would be in line with the spirit of the founding fathers and force national politicians to address the needs of rural America. When is the ONLY time you hear about presidential campaigners talking about farm policy? When they are in Iowa lobbying the people who attend the caucuses. If we linked Electoral Votes to Congressional Districts it would force a sea change in presidential election strategy. (Under this plan, the winner of the majority votes in the state would receive the other two electoral votes)

Dan Johnson-Weinberger 1:35 AM  

Jeff, I think we're saying the same thing. I'm saying people vote when their vote makes a difference -- that's why voter turnout is higher in close races than in foregone conclusions. You say people don't vote if they're not engaged or involved, but people get engaged or involved when they can make a difference. In Illinois (and most other states), they just can't make a difference in the November presidential elections. As for purple counties, I'd consider Will and Lake Counties both purple counties, and they get just as much attention as DuPage and Cook Counties (red and blue, respectively) from statewide candidates and campaigns.

But why do you see any shift to urban areas away from rural areas with a national popular vote? Look at the way presidential elections are run now. The rural areas of swing states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida) are worked just as hard as the urban areas. When every vote counts, then every voter is important.

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