Governator Terminates National Popular Vote

As reported in the New York Times on 2 October, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have added his state to the proposed interestate compact under which states would agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. (The compact itself would take effect if, and only if, laws enabling it had been passed in states comprising at least 270 electoral votes, the number needed to elect a President.)

The veto is not surprising, as–unlike in various other states–for some reason the issue became a partisan issue in this state, and Republicans refused to vote for it in the legislature. I have addressed the merits of this idea before, as well as the utter speciousness of the arguments against it.

The short story is that it is a means by which states–which are constitutionally empowered to appoint their electors by rules of their own choosing–would commit to one another that they would back the national winner. Thus, without either a constitutional amendment or any kind of “end run” on the constitution (as some opponents have rather hysterically called it), we could transform our electoral process for chief executive into a democratic vote of the people.

Under the current system, the number of competitive states has been dwindling. We have ceased having national campaigns for the national executive as a result. In a large state like California, the campaign is virtually invisible, because the state is not competitive between the two main parties.

Under the national popular vote, a vote that might be cast by any citizen anywhere in the country would be just as valuable as that of any other, anywhere else. (One person, one vote–get it?) For some, democracy is still too threatening. Unfortunately, that includes the governor of our largest state–a governor who likes to style himself as a government reformer, and who was himself elected in a jurisdiction-wide plurality popular vote without the intermediation of electors (or even party primaries). If a vote for governor cast in Los Angeles can count just as much as one cast in Alturas, why can’t the vote cast in Alturas for president count as much as one cast in Cincinnati? The state-by-state, winner-take-all, rule for electing the most powerful leader in the world defies all logic, and indeed, the founders of the nation’s political system never defended it (to my knowledge).*

Why did this become a partisan issue in this state? I challenge my readers to tell me why Republicans–here or anywhere–believe their party would be harmed by this measure. Are they not aware that Bush won over 50% of the vote in 2004, yet nearly lost the electoral college in Ohio?

Are the Republicans right to believe that 2004 was an aberration and that they can win in the future only if the campaign is concentrated in a few states and not national? It is possible that the answer is yes, but advocates of democratizing America need to call them on it. Because “my party can’t win” is not an acceptable argument against democratic electoral reform.


* In fact, some years after the electoral college had gone into operation, Thomas Jefferson noted how states were unwilling to dilute their own particularistic influence for the good of the nation: As long as other states give all their electors to the winner–by whatever vote share or margin–within their own state, no state has an incentive to do anything else. The national popular vote compact solves this dilemma.

0 thoughts on “Governator Terminates National Popular Vote

  1. NPV as I see it has two flaws: first, it doesn’t solve the plurality voting problem (unlike you, I am not convinced that Condorcet-like procedures necessarily lead to “wishy-washy” winners), so it’s a half-measure at best, and second, whether or not it is legally an “end run” around the 11th Amendment it certainly feels like one (see e.g. Sanford Levinson’s argument recently at TNR’s new blog, where he specifically argues in favor of NPV as an end-run around the amendment procedure in the constitution). Unless, of course, Democrats are willing to concede that Scalia’s widely-mocked (by them, at least) statement that there is no individual right to choose presidential electors in Bush v. Gore is accurate.

    And, of course, it takes two to be bipartisan (and only one to be partisan). Perhaps if NPV’s Democratic advocates had made a more convincing case to the California GOP about the legitimacy of their approach then they could have secured a victory… which probably says more about NPV advocates’ inability to build winning coalitions under divided government than the merits of their ideas.

  2. Chris writes: “NPV … doesn’t solve the plurality voting problem … so it’s a half-measure at best.”

    I think the interstate compact campaign has a better chance of getting us from where we are to a national majority popular vote than any other other approach.

    There is, of course, some risk involved. The campaign could fail, leaving the long-standing constitutional gridlock in place and making change appear even less likely than it does now. Or its success could leave people less motivated to take the next step and implement IRV or two-round runoff by constitutional amendment.

    But I’m gambling that the most likely result of success would be to break the gridlock and make further constitutional change possible. If Chris has an alternative to taking these risks, I’d like to hear it.

  3. I don’t really like the idea of using NPV to elect a president. Talk about giving a president a mandate! What would Guillermo O’Donnell say about that?

    I realize the electoral college system is less than perfect. But I’d rather see us move towards a more proportionality-based system.

    Though Bush did win the popular vote in 2004 … perhaps the GOP might want NPV to reduce the Dems’ advantages in large states like California & New York.

  4. No, I agree that PR doesn’t work for a single person office, like the presidency. But I don’t see why an election by the legislature can’t become the norm. It all depends on the goal.

    My objectin to NPV is that it gives the president a powerful “mandate” to use against Congress. Then all of Linz’s criticisms about presidentialism kick in. The president is completely elected by “the people” and can use that to attack the “special interests” or the legislature. Bush has in many ways acted like the kind of delegative democrat described by O’Donnell. I worry about how other future presidents would use a popular mandate if facing an opposition legislature (Bush didn’t face one, but how would he act if he had?!).

    I still believe that a legislative election of the executive might be best. It has the added benefit of tying the executive closer to the legislature. Now, imagine that electoral college votes were distributed using some sort of PR system. Could that not translate into support for third (or fourth or fifth) parties? Especially if we knew that the legislature would elect the president if no one candidate won a majority of the electoral college. Under such a system, we could see presidents elected by multiparty coalitions that would liekly lead to multiparty cabinets.

    I realize that such changes are more radical and therefore more improbably (or difficult) than simply adopting NPV. But just because passing NPV laws is easier doesn’t necessarily make them the best. The experience of strong, popularly elected presidents in Latin America is troubling. So far, US presidents are not popularly elected, which is a powerful protection, in my mind.

  5. The NPV has been bipartisan in other states. I do not know why California was an exception, but, as Chris notes, it takes two to be bipartisan. See my previous post about the specious arguments advanced by some Republicans in California.

    I share Chris’s concerns about plurality election, even though I do not specifically worry about crossing the 50% threshold. I would prefer a runoff in any very close election in which no candidate won close to 50%. But a runoff system of any sort (two rounds or instant) would require, minimally, a statutory change, and probably a constitutional amendment. I agree 100% with Bob that this NPV movement repersents our best chance to move towards a runoff system. Let’s get to de facto direct vote (via NPV), and then the debate will open up. So, it is not an “end run”; it is a jump start to the amendment process.

    Miguel, a more proportional system, yes! But you can’t elect a single-person presidency by PR. And if states started allocating their electors by PR (which they would not, absent interstate coordination anyway), you wind up with the risk that no candidate obtains a majority of electors. Then you get either elections decided in the House (by the even-more-absurd one-state-one-vote rule), or you have minor candidates bargaining and ‘throwing’ their electors to one of the leading candidates (as used to happen in Argentina’s PR-elected electoral college). Both of those options have rather significant flaws, I would think.

  6. Is there any evidence that more “powerful” “mandates” generate more problematic executive-legislative relations (i.e. more Linzian problems) than lesser mandates, ceteris paribus?

    If there is, I am certainly not aware of it.

  7. You mean is there a correlation between percent of votes won in an election and propensity towards authoritarian presidents? I’m not aware of such a relationship either.

    But I do believe that direct popular vote — w/ no other considerations (electoral college, AV, or even something creative like the Nigerian model) — would create a “sense” of a popular mandate. After all, such an election would do little else (IMHO). In contrast, other kinds of electoral systems that limit the majoritarian impulse through some mechanism (not necessarily the same one as the electoral college, which is why I suggested AV) would make it more difficult for a president to assume a narrow mandate.

    Then again, there’s no theoretical reason why a Condorcet winner can’t be considered to have a “mandate from the people” either. Perhaps I’ve too much Latin America on my mind.

  8. The idea of a “more powerful mandate” is really about how powerful the people and legislature perceive the mandate to be. Currently media generally report primarily on the electoral vote in presidential elections, but in an NPV world I would expect them to focus on the overall popular vote instead. I suspect this would give presidents a less powerful mandate under Miguel’s view.

    To see why, think of Bush vs. Dukakis. It’s currently viewed as a 426-111 landslide, but under NPV would be seen as 53% vs 46%. To the man on the street, that looks pretty close! To be sure, after a few election cycles the populace would become used to such figures, and would understand that such a gap is actually fairly large. But at least in the short term, I wouldn’t expect a popular-vote to cause any extreme growth in the strength of the president.

  9. Yes, but then again, the 2004 election was fairly close in the electoral college (286-251), but Bush & the Republicans made a lot of noise about how Bush was reelected with 50.7% of the popular vote and that this was the first time in a long time any president had a majority of the popular vote. So I think it could go either way. But it’s a good point: the electoral collage can “amplify” mandates.

  10. Miguel, your example supports Vasi’s point: “The idea of a ‘more powerful mandate’ is really about how powerful the people and legislature perceive the mandate to be.”

    And, in any event, on the key policies Bush started talking about after the 2004 election, he did not get them. Apparently even the GOP recognized that 50.7% did not give him a mandate to restructure Social Security (among other plans).

  11. Proportional allocation of electors is a neat idea, but it’s still not a democratic, direct election.

    But let’s suspend our democratic credentials for a moment. Let’s ignore the normative imperative to hold democratic elections in a proudly democratic country.

    Proportional allocation of electors would have thrown numerous presidential elections into the House of Representatives. Rumor has it that the figure is roughly a third. If I see anything concrete, I’ll be sure to share.

    I wonder how many House-contingent presidential elections it would take before we turned back to NPV.

    Or maybe we’d fight our presidential elections on two fronts: in battleground states and, pending a contingent election, every two years in battleground congressional districts.

    That latter bit is what advocates of district-based allocation want anyway.

  12. I’m still also not convinced that *direct* popular vote is somehow automatically “better” than other alternatives. If we really wanted to be “true” democrats, we’d advocate for the dissolution of the federal government entirely and subdivide the country into units no larger than 2,000 (give or take) so that we could all govern ourselves directly in a hands-on approach. I make the ridiculous argument just to make a point: Is *direct* popular vote always a better option than some other alternative? I guess at this point I’m more interested in engaging w/ some of the literature on democratic theory — particularly pluralist theory — on the subject.

  13. Also, because of accumulated distortions, a state-by-state proportional allocation of electoral votes does not guarantee that the trailing candidate in a close election does not get a majority in the Electoral College. In 2000, Bush might still have won, partly due to the overrepresentation of small states.

    As others have written, a change in electoral systems also affects the way people vote and politicians act, so who knows what would have happened in this unlikely scenario. Nader, Buchanan or someone else possibly would have done better – throwing the election into the House unless a deal was struck first. VP Ralph or Pat, anyone?

    Of course, no electoral votes were needed at all to make also-ran John Hagelin President of the US Peace Government.

  14. While I agree that an unfortunate feature of the electoral college is that parties do not target voters in non-swing states, a disadvantage of NPV is that parties have to target voters in all states. The result would be an advertising blitz and door to door mobilization campaign that will make the costs of campaigns skyrocket, even past Brazilian or Japanese levels. This should not criple the reform; democracy is better than the alternative. But advocates of NPV will need to consider campaign finance reforms and enhanced monitoring of mobilization efforts by both parties as part of their proposals and not a separate issue.

  15. No, direct election of the executive is not necessarily better. But in a presidential system, the chief executive, by definition, must originate and survive independently of the legislature. That means either direct election, or elese election by an electoral college that is itself elected (and does not consist of legislators). And, of those two options, direct election is indisputably more democratic, in that it increases the probability that the national majority (rather than the majorities in various regional districts) determines the selection of the national executive.

    With all caveats (as expressed above) about the risks of narrow or well-below-majority election under plurality rule, direct election satisfies the majority-rule condition better than an electoral college does. And, as noted above (more than once!), if the NPV advances, we will then have arrived at the point where we as a nation are debating different methods of direct election–majority runoff, qualified plurality, alternative vote, etc.

    If one wants to argue for a different form of executive structure, that’s fine. I might even agree. (I might even agree that some atlernatives are more “democratic.”) But that is not what this thread, or the NPV debate, is about. It is about how to elect a chief executive who originates and survives independently of the legislature.

    Miguel’s favored Bolivian model is not on the table, as far as I know. And neither is a parliamentary system–for better or worse.

  16. Point taken.

    Though I just finished re-reading an article by Ordeshook & Shvetsova (Journal of Democracy 1997) w/ my comparative politics students (this week we’re looking at “constitutional engineering”) and was reminded of distinction between the US “integrated” federalism (this is my term, not theirs) v. the “N+1” federalism of the Russian Federation.

    Also, are presidents necessarily independent of the legislature in elections? There’s the case of “assembly-independent” systems. But then there’s the nature of coat-tails and other crossover effects.

    I’m not trying to be pedantic or difficult. I hope I don’t come across that way. I’m just trying to understand not just the practical advantages of NPV (which I agree are substantial!), but it’s various longterm and theoretical implications as well.

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