National Popular Vote

Yesterday I blogged about personal vote verification.  At the group level, I recommend supporting the National Popular Vote.  While most people (70%) favor a popular vote for president, the U.S. Constitution calls for an electoral college system.  The National Popular Vote movement is extremely clever in that it doesn’t require a constitutional change:

Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

As of this writing, the bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland, which represent a combined 19% of the electoral votes necessary for the U.S. to have a de facto national popular vote for the presidency.

While National Popular Vote doesn’t solve the problem of voting fraud and irregularities at individual polling places, it does dampen the cascading and amplifying effect that the electoral system yields in close election years.

Given that the National Popular Vote can come about incrementally, state by state until the threshold is reached, and given the difficulty state legislators would have if they were to try to repeal the NPV bill they already passed, it seems inevitable that it will come to pass.  Whether you agree or disagree, you can make your prediction here.

  • Ben

    While abolishing the electoral college would be nice, this bill seems like a missed opportunity to replace our one vote, winner take all system with a voting system that more truly reflects the will of the people, like instant runoff or approval voting. Such a change would prevent the Ralph Naders of the future from winning elections for the George Bushes of the future.

  • Unfortunately there is no opportunity to replace the voting system without changing the Constitution, which is not likely to happen. What’s so clever about NPV is that it simply co-opts the current system to work in a way that is preferred. Once NPV is passed though, one could imagine more drastic changes being shoehorned into the electoral college system.

  • I would point out a couple of things:

    1. Our government is meant to be federalist, and delegate as much responsibility to the states as possible. The importance of the national election is just one big indicator of how far we have drifted from how the system was designed.

    2. The electoral votes, and in fact our entire legislative branch, were specifically arranged in such a way that no area could be so unimportant that politicians could entirely ignore it. The electoral college serves the purpose of making sure that our election has a geographical basis, which discourages politicians from crafting legislation that is particularly beneficial to one area of the country while hurting the others. As an added bonus to this geographic division, fraud in one state is isolated from fraud in any other.

    While I don’t disagree that our electoral system has plenty of issues, even leaving aside the massive insecurities we’ve let creep into the system in many states, our founding fathers had good reasons for not wanting the federal government to be voted into place by pure populism. When considering revising this aspect of the system, it is worth reviewing what those reasons were.

  • @ taoist

    You bring up some good points, so perhaps you can review for us those a priori reasons in light of the current environment and trajectory. The system was designed to change with the times, and as prescient as our forefathers were, they were not omniscient.

  • In light of the current environment and trajectory? That’s tough.
    My big regret with our current government is that it has entirely expanded and transformed from what the founding fathers envisioned into essentially a totalitarian and fascist government, if you use the historic definitions of the terms when they were first invented(not the terms as they’re used in flame wars online). I highly recommend Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, which isn’t so much a political novel (as its title would seem to imply), but is much more well referenced, historic novel describing the transformation our government and politics took through the last century into such a large, top down, clumsy system — away from the distributed and flexible system the founding fathers designed that only the libertarians and the more federalist minded Republicans still advocate for.
    As all of this relates back to voting, there are several issues. The issues that I first mentioned are perhaps the most important: our federal government is now overwhelmingly important in how we vote, much more so than any vote at a local enough level where our vote makes much of a difference. This goes along with a national perception that the presidency is the most important factor in politics, when really, the legislative branch wields way more power and influence over our lives and our country.
    Looking at the National Popular Vote plan, it is true that the presidency is the one position that we could actually hold a vote on at the national level. My main concern would be that we would be opening up the system to fraud at the national level. Right now the geographic nature of the vote means that to swing a national election you have to have fraud at either many locations, or at key locations, of which there are not many. If the state electoral votes went to the winner of the popular vote, than any vote fraud anywhere would help swing the election.
    Legally, I believe that the states assign their electoral votes. In fact, I know that originally people didn’t even vote for the president, they instead appointed electoral officials who would cast the state’s votes for the presidency, among other tasks, one more reason why we’re technically a Republic, and not a Democracy. While a national popular vote would in some ways make most people’s vote count a little bit more in the election, it would also take this power away from states, and be one more breakdown of Federalism, in that sense it would be taking power away from people’s votes.

  • As you might be able to tell from my discussion, I am a big fan of Federalism – you would also be able to tell this if you read enough on my blog. As an computer scientist, the lesson that is hammered constantly is that top down systems tend to be very crude, slow, and buggy. Smarter designs inevitably have semi-independent, communicating pieces that can function much more quickly and effectively, and since they are smaller, are easier to replace or fix in case of failure. I see the success of this philosophy mirrored in the success of capitalism vs. other systems, and throughout society when comparing successful organizations against each other. Federalism similarly uses this approach: divide up government into mostly independent states, each free to experiment, and free to copy each other’s successes while isolating particular failures to only the area that implemented it. Share only the functions of government that need to be done at the national level (such as defense), but share information such as criminal records that allow states to cooperate.

  • I think we agree on the premise of bottom-up, heterogeneous, emergent control. The question is what powers need to be centralized. Clearly some do, as you point out by example.

    When it comes to voting for a national leader, I feel like it’s easier to game a federalist system than a truly democratic one since with the former there are points of high leverage where small efforts can tip the system into cascading one way or another. Whereas with a national popular vote, those leverage points are averaged out in the wash.