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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The Path to a National Popular Vote


Right now, many are frustrated about Iowa and New Hampshire voters having such oversized influence in America's presidential elections. In a few months, as the general election campaign unfolds, we will be similarly frustrated about Ohio and Florida. Who arbitrarily gave this handful of states the disproportionate power to determine our national political path?

When it comes to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the answer is the parties. They decide which states select nominees first. In the general election, the culprit is the Electoral College. Most states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. By no matter what margin presidential candidates win your state, they get all your state's electoral votes. That means if you don't live in a "battleground" like Florida or Ohio whose statewide vote is perpetually up for grabs, you are ignored.

The nominating system is easily modified. Parties can add early primary and caucus states if they choose. Changing the general election, on the other hand, looks much harder. The Electoral College and its negative consequences seem locked into the Constitution.

But the operative word is "seem."

The group National Popular Vote has developed an ingenious path around this constitutional obstruction: States can pass legislation mandating that all of their presidential electoral votes go to the winner of the national popular vote — regardless of the election outcome in their own state.

If, say, Democrat-dominated Vermont signed on to the plan and a Republican won the national popular vote, Vermont would award its electoral votes to the Republican candidate, regardless of an overwhelming Democratic vote inside Vermont. If Republican-dominated Utah signed on to the plan and a Democrat won the popular vote, same thing — Utah's electors would go to the Democrat.

The key element is the clause ensuring the plan does not take effect until states representing a majority of all electoral votes sign on. That way, the system only launches when it has enough electoral votes behind it to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote is the winner of the presidential election. No one state acts alone, and therefore neither political party gets an undue advantage.

This plan would immediately change presidential politics for the better.

As just one example, take the closely divided city of Indianapolis.

It is currently ignored by presidential candidates because both parties know there is almost no chance Indiana will vote anything other than Republican in a presidential contest. Under the national popular vote plan, however, Indianapolis would suddenly be just as worthy of candidate attention as a similarly sized, closely divided city like Columbus, Ohio. That's because geography would cease to determine the importance of a vote. In the national popular vote system, a vote is a vote, regardless of where a candidate gets it.

The public is clamoring for this kind of fix. A 2007 Harvard University study found almost three-quarters of Americans favor a national popular vote over the current system.

The problem is Republican operatives who are trying to steer this public opinion into support for a partisan scheme to rig elections for good. Under the banner of democracy and fairness, these apparatchiks began crafting plans to push a ballot initiative in California unilaterally awarding the state's electoral votes by congressional district, rather than by winner-take-all. In other words, California's 53 congressional districts would each be like a separate state with one electoral vote going to whichever candidate won the presidential contest in that district. Experts agree the result would likely be Republicans gaining 22 electoral votes without doing a thing.

Not surprisingly, these Republicans are not pushing the same plan for red states like Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, where Democrats could make similar gains on a district-by-district basis. But that hypocrisy is secondary, because to bill the scheme as a pro-democracy reform is to lie through one's teeth. Consider that if the 2000 election had been decided on a district-by-district basis, George W. Bush's margin of Electoral College victory would have actually grown, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote.

Thankfully, the California initiative was torpedoed by GOP infighting, but you can bet it will be back soon. That is, unless states step up now. By passing national popular vote bills in the upcoming 2008 legislative sessions, state lawmakers can bring America closer to getting the democracy our civics books pretend we already have.

David Sirota is the bestselling author of "Hostile Takeover" (Crown, 2006). He is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan research organizations. His daily blog can be found at To find out more about David Sirota and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



11 Comments | Post Comment
The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President arises from the winner-take-all rule (currently used by 48 of 50 states) under which all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state. If the partisan divide in a state is not initially closer than about 46%-54%, no amount of campaigning during a brief presidential campaign is realistically going to reverse the outcome in the state. As a result, presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns in voters of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Instead, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. As a result, 88% of the money and visits (and attention) is focused on just 9 states. Fully 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. More than two-thirds of the country is left out.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). 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). When the bill is enacted in a group of states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all of the electoral votes from those states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has 366 legislative sponsors in 47 states. It has been signed into law in Maryland. Since its introduction in February 2006, the bill has passed by 12 legislative houses (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, New Jersey, and North Carolina, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, and California).


Comment: #1
Posted by: joreko
Fri Dec 28, 2007 7:15 AM
The National Popular Vote system, actually, takes an individual's vote away. Proportional Representation is the fairest way. We need IRV, Inatant-runoff Voting, with Proportional Representation. This would break the stranglehold the conservatives in both parties have on the elections and the legislation. ( Just Google IRV.)
But we could have Proportional Representation without Irv. This way each person's vote counts.
Comment: #2
Posted by: JoAnn
Fri Dec 28, 2007 1:11 PM
On general principles it bothers me how often I agree with Mr. Sirota. In reply to the first comment and to address the particular genius of this idea: Proportional representation and irv are great ideas. However, irv is a completely new form of voting, requiring a large expenditure in informational campaigns, and unforeseeable problems on election day until the kinks are worked out. Proportional representation is a parliamentary system, which I think is great, but that would require a change in the Constitution itself to accomplish. The hardest thing to accomplish legislatively, and purposefully so, under a constitutional form of government, is a change to the document that sets the rules for change. Therefore, this plan, which requires no change in the way people actually vote, or that we change our constitution, is a really good idea. A really simple idea. And most importantly less than a year away from a general election, a really cheap idea.
Comment: #3
Posted by: argyle
Sat Dec 29, 2007 7:32 AM
Counting all of the legally cast votes would be a good start. Had all of the legally cast, uncounted votes been counted in 2000 in Florida as Florida law clearly required, Al Gore would've won the electoral college vote and spent the last 7 years in the White House and our country wouldn't now be in the disaster it's in. The leadership of the Democratic party and democrats in the Senate couldn't abandon Al Gore fast enough and hide in their cushy, ivory Washington towers and then did nothing to defend the peoples right to vote. Bush in an act of treason that was rubberstamped by a U.S.constitution shredding republican majority on the U,S, Supreme Court, illegally stopped a legal vote count in Florida and stole Al Gore's victory. Our country will pay forever for Bush's ending of democracy in America in 2000.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Gore2008
Sun Dec 30, 2007 6:52 AM
Counting all of the legally cast votes would be a good start. Had this happened in Florida in 2000 and as Florida law actually required, Al Gore would've spent the last 7 years in the White House and our country wouldn't now be in the disaster it's in. The ugly truth is that Al Gore is the rightful winner of the 2000 election because he won both the national popular vote and the electoral college vote because he did in fact get the most votes in Florida. It was a broad daylight coup d'etat carried out by Bush the thief and rubberstamped by the constitution shredding republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that illegally stopped the legal vote count that was taking place in Florida. This coup was enabled by the leadership of the Democratic party and Senate democrats who so publically abandoned Al Gore and then hid in their cushy, ivory Washington towers and did nothing to defend the peoples right to vote. Our country will pay forever for Bush's illegal and unconsitutional ending of democracy in America and for the Democratic Party's abandoning of Al Gore and then doing nothing to stop the Bush coup in 2000. Anyone who thinks the republicans will ever again allow all of the votes to be counted and that the leadership of the Democratic party and Senate democrats will fight to have all of the votes counted is living on Mars.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Gore2008
Sun Dec 30, 2007 7:10 AM
"When it comes to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the answer is the parties." In the last forty years what have the parties done to fix the problem? Early primaries have moved from April to January, and New Hampshire and Iowa are still at the front of the line.

The problem needs to be looked at in terms of voter disenfranchisement rather than one as simply something left up to the parties. New Hampshire and Iowa have laws saying they will be first. These are laws that affect me, and I happen to live in Oregon. Is this something that should be left to the parties? Legitimacy of laws is something that should be determined by the courts.

Read Brown v. Board of Education and substitute 'voting in Presidential primaries' for 'public school education'. When most of the electorate's choice is to rubber stamp what the people at the front of the line have already decided, it is hardly accurate to call the system democratic.

I, for one, am tired of voting from the back of the bus.
Comment: #6
Posted by: allizdog
Sun Dec 30, 2007 9:17 AM
We need Instant Runoff Voting with Proportional Representation. But first we need paper trails with automatic audits structured to check a sufficient percentage of the paper ballots to statistically verify accuracy. We need a structure of checks by all interested parties to safeguard the vote. And we need public-secured exit polling, not this MSM consortium that "adjusts" the results. Otherwise, all we'll have is another 2004 popular vote that indicated Bush winning when Kerry won by more than five million. It would have been several million higher if mostly minority voters, black, Native American and hispanic, hadn't been prevented from voting. While we're at it, we better pay attention to the other elections for members of Congress, governors, etal and even referenda who in a number of instances, have been hacked and otherwise tampered with. The shinnanigans in 2006 left us with a minimum of ten seats filled by Republicans who had not been elected. Statistically, it can be shown. But how to prove that with no paper trails. That's the beauty of those computers.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Pat Williams
Sun Dec 30, 2007 11:03 AM
Instead of creating another system which also disenfranchises voters, how about a system which awards each state's electoral college votes proportionatly. If a candidate gets 40% of the vote he (or she) gets 40% of the Electoral College voters (or as close to 40% without cutting a person in two). I believe this is the best and most fair solution even if it requires amending the constitution. HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE...
Comment: #8
Posted by: kje17
Mon Dec 31, 2007 4:25 PM
Re: argyle
Maybe I'm missing something, but foolish me, I love democracy. I'd like every vote to count and be counted. I understand that the founding fathers ridiculed democracy as a tyranny of the (ignorant)majority over the (educated)minority but times have changed and even though most of the American population are proudly ignorant they still can read and given the opportunity I am sure they could be trained to think. Change the Constitution? What Constitution? The last few administrations have made it clear we are running on empty. As Rummy said, the Constitution is merely words on paper. It doesn't work any more to protect anyone or preserve our freedoms, exactly because it was designed to protect the wealthy few at the top, the slave owners, the landowners. We can change that, we can make it simple and clear so lawyers don't outnumber teachers and doctors. I love the idea of a true democracy, one person, one vote. I am tired of people patting me on the head and telling me not to worry the electoral college is on my side. Clearly the system is too corrupt to fix. The cancer in America is systemic and terminal. Let's clear the table and get us a democracy that cannot be corrupted. Let's start with admitting that our history is one of genocide and aggression and our government is diseased. A little surgery, a little chemo and a new Constitution that insures everybody votes, every vote is counted and the winner becomes our temporary leader with firm checks on their powers and transparency of their actions. Let's be the country we brag to the world that we are.
Comment: #9
Posted by: William Shirley
Wed Jan 16, 2008 3:16 PM
Maybe I am not as smart as some of you,no disrespect intended. I wonder that states in the south and California with very large hispanic populations could vote laws that benefited just hispanics.Could they even vote for secession from the country?I hope that I don't seem too ridicules,but could this happen?
Comment: #10
Posted by: Edward Pleskovitch
Sun Jan 20, 2008 8:04 AM
The issue of tyranny of the majority is a real one. The candidate who is most favorable to a highly populated, mostly urban state like New York or California may not be the candidate favorable to less populated, mostly rural states like Wyoming or Iowa. So the game is rigged to give a boost to the voice of the smaller (in population) states. I don't think that's a bad thing.
I want to add that since Nevada, lots of people have called the caucus system lousy. Yet it's the best system for some of the midwestern and western states where one (or two) large cities dominate the population. Using a caucus system, the smaller more rural precincts get a seat at the table too.
We have to be careful when considering election reform that we don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
Comment: #11
Posted by: GMFORD
Sun Jan 20, 2008 10:13 PM
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