Singing the Electoral College Blues: Time for a National Popular Vote for President

July 10, 2012
Guest Post

By Jamie Raskin, a Democratic State Senator in Maryland, a professor of constitutional law at American University where he directs the Program on Law and Government, and a Senior Fellow at People for the American Way

Another week goes by – and more evidence piles up that all the real political action in the 2012 presidential campaign is taking place in just nine swing states where the major parties are spending "tens of millions of dollars" on a "blizzard of political ads" and engaging in vibrant grassroots campaigning. Meantime, in the 80 percent of America where everything is over except for sending our money into the swing states to chase the remaining swing voters, it is nearly impossible to get national attention and political engagement – even where the stakes are unusually high. 

Here in true-blue Maryland, the stakes couldn't be much higher, at least for progressives. Not only do we have our 10 Electoral College votes to award, but the November ballot could well feature hugely important referendum questions about marriage equality, the Dream Act and congressional redistricting. Maryland activists are mobilized and trying hard to educate people about these questions, but they’re working against the odds to attract national political and financial support. After all unlike our next-door neighbor Virginia, we’re not a swing state.

The Washington Post reports on the dozens of campaign offices being opened across Virginia by the Obama and Romney campaigns, the big money pouring in from all over the country, the Super PAC political drone missiles zooming in, the wealth of candidate visits and the electric October-style energy in the early summer. 

I am still hopeful that national progressive groups and funders will wake up to the extraordinary opportunity we have in Maryland in 2012 to uphold marriage equality at the polls for the first time and to strike a blow against mean-spirited anti-immigrant politics. But the sharp contrast between what's happening in Virginia and what's not happening in Maryland teaches the urgent wisdom of the National Popular Vote (NPV) plan that Maryland was the first state in the nation to adopt, in 2007, and that is headed toward nationwide acceptance.

The NPV legislation is a nationwide interstate compact that would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the United States. Under the NPV, each of a participating 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, therefore, uses the Electoral College in a way that ensures that every vote in every state will matter in every presidential election. The scheme would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by enough states to possess a majority of the electoral votes. To date, states possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it – have adopted the NPV law.

The NPV will not only prevent debacles like the 2000 election in which the popular vote loser (George W. Bush) prevailed in the Electoral College.  It will wipe out the exaltation of swing states and bypassing of safe states by making every citizen's vote count and every citizen's vote count equally regardless of where we live.  It will no longer be strategically favorable to turn off the lights and fly over 40 states – from California to New York, Texas to Vermont, Georgia to Mississippi, Hawaii to Alaska, South Dakota to Montana, and so on. 

As I watch the 2012 presidential campaign unfold in the lucky swing states, where the electorate is closely divided, I have come to loathe the argument that the rest of us should be content to be long-distance spectators because the voters of Virginia or Arizona or Florida are just like us and are effectively acting as proxies for our interests and our values. 

This was precisely the argument that was rejected in the American Revolution.

The British tried to convince the American colonists that they didn't need their own elections and representatives in Parliament because they were "virtually represented" by members back home representing Englishmen of similar views. The colonists rebelled against this insulting doctrine of "virtual representation," which they treated as an assault on political liberty and authentic democracy rooted in the politics of place. Roughly 140 years later, we similarly rejected claims that women didn't need the vote because they were adequately represented by men.

Every citizen's vote should count equally in presidential elections, as in elections for governor or mayor. But the current regime makes votes in swing states hugely valuable while rendering votes in non-competitive states virtually meaningless. This weird lottery, as we have seen, dramatically increases incentives for strategic partisan mischief and electoral corruption in states like Florida and Ohio. You can swing a whole election by suppressing, deterring, rejecting and disqualifying just a few thousand votes. Ask Katherine Harris – it can be done! 

I introduced the NPV legislation in Maryland in 2007 because we were tired of being bypassed in our presidential elections. It would be great to have some presidential candidates come to Maryland and talk about their plans for restoring the Chesapeake Bay or building overdue mass transit projects, like the Purple Line and Red Line, to reduce our traffic problems. It would be nice to be sought after, and listened to, like the anti-Castro Cuban-American community in Florida, a swing group in a swing state. But, alas, the current rules make us Electoral College rejects. The money and volunteers we raise are immediately sent out of state. This is the inescapable logic of the system. 

The National Popular Vote offers the people a way to use the Electoral College to have a true national election for the one public official who should represent all Americans. A national election will involve and engage the whole nation. Political and legal activists with time on their hands in the safe states should work to get their state legislatures to sign up.