The California Assembly passed the bill that would enter the state into an interstate compact for electing the US President according to the National Popular Vote plan. The plan would take effect only after it became law in states combining for a majority of electoral votes.
Surprisingly, the bill passed, 49-31, and obtained only one Republican vote in the chamber. There is no objective reason why this should be a partisan issue, and in fact, in New York’s state legislature it was a Republican who introduced the bill. Similarly, in Illinois and Colorado and other states, many Republicans support the concept of the National Popular Vote.
Over at the Fair Vote blog (see grafted link at the bottom of the post), there is an absolutely hysterical quote from a California Republican, John Doolittle, about how “the left is nothing if not creative” and is using this as a ploy to turn elections into “into populist referendums [that] will benefit their candidates.”
Well, that is refreshing, in one sense. It apparently is admission that Democrats are likely to be more popular than Republicans and so Republicans can win only with an electoral college that distorts the electorate’s choice and occasionally overrides the popular vote. Now, that’s an interesting argument given that his party’s candidate in fact won a majority of the popular vote in 2004, yet nearly lost the electoral college. The Kerry campaign put almost all its effort into a few states, while the Bush campaign was much more national in scope. Kerry almost swung Ohio, and if he had, Bush’s popular majority would have been irrelevant.
Moreover, the 2000 result also could have gone the other way, and, at the time, Republicans acted as though they thought such an event was likely. How else to explain the sudden ad purchase in California–a state that Bush had no chance to win–late in the campaign, if it was not an attempt to lift the popular vote nationaly? When the election was clearly going to the wire, and Ralph Nader was potentially cutting into Al Gore’s popular vote, but Gore was expected to run the table on most of the swing states (including Florida), media reports started to appear that this could be the year that the popular vote and electoral vote go separate ways. But the most likely outcome was a Gore electoral vote win and a Bush popular vote win–which presumably Bush would have used to political advantage in any post-election contest. Instead, Gore legitimately won both, but the Supreme Court intervened, and some Republicans like Doolittle have developed a folklore that their party can win only by keeping the electoral college as we know it.
The question of electoral vs. popular vote is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue. It is simply false to assume that the electoral college benefits small states and Republicans, as though those were one and the same. Republicans do slightly better in smaller states, which are over-represented in the electoral college, but Delaware and Hawaii are small states that are safe for Democrats. And, precisely because Democrats are indeed marginally stronger than Republicans in larger (more urban) states, and because the electoral college is currently chosen on a statewide winner-take-all basis in all the large states (and all but two of the entire 50), if one party benefits from the status quo institutional arrangement over the long haul, it is the Democrats. More likely, there is no systematic partisan bias to the current procedures, as the impact depends on the extent to which the partisan and state maps interact with one another in a given election. What we do have is a perpetual risk of having small numbers of votes in critical swing states, instead of national preference swings, determine the national executive.
The effective confinement of the campaign to a few swing states is what 2000 and 2004 have in common, and neither election would have resulted in post-election controversy had it been decided based on the national vote.