As you may have heard, National Popular Vote passed the Senate 28-10 at 10:37 last Thursday night after more than four hours of debate. It was “enacted”* in the House Tuesday after passing 113-35 in June. One more up or down enactment vote in the Senate, which could come as early as today, the signature of Governor Deval Patrick and Massachusetts will join Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, and Washington as the 6th member in an interstate compact that will ensure that the presidential candidate with the most votes wins and that voters in Massachusetts are just as important as voters in Ohio or Florida.
Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, and a certain segment of the far right, hates this bill and has been using every trick in the book to delay a vote on the merits, including a semi-filibuster. Luckily there is only so much that can be done to block debate when there is overwhelming support. Many thanks to Senate President for her support and for bringing it up five times. Her persistence has paid off.
Great work too, by Sen. Joan Menard, the lead sponsor, who spoke to colleagues and held the gavel all night and Senator Tom Kennedy who, as Election Laws Chair, was the floor leader. Kennedy made some great speeches and has been a long-time supporter. Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, and Senator Anthony Petruccelli, also helped out a lot. Senators Eldridge and Chang-Diaz did a lot of debating, taking the microphone multiple times. Strong floor speeches in support by Senators Sue Tucker, Sue Fargo, Harriett Chandler, and Ken Donnelly, too.
National Popular Vote is a big priority for Common Cause and we have a strong coalition supporting it here in Massachusetts, including MassVOTE, ACLU of Massachusetts MASSPIRG, NAACP, JALSA, Oiste, Sierra Club, and the Black Political Task Force.
So why is this important?
Let me count the ways.
The candidate with the most votes should win the election. Just like in every other race in the country. In 1 out of 14 presidential elections-1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, the second place candidate was elected. But we have narrowly missed this anti-democratic result much more frequently. In 5 out of the last 12 elections a shift of just a few thousand votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate.
Every vote should count equally. We are not the battleground states of America; we are the Untied States of America. Every voter should have an equal say in electing the President. It is crazy to have 15 states elect the President because, through an accident of demographics, they have roughly equal numbers of Rs and Ds. Then, because of the winner take-all rule the entire weight of the state goes to the winner. Thus candidates really only bother with a handful of battleground states. In the 2008 general election, activists at Blue Mass and elsewhere didn’t call voters in our state to persuade them to vote for Obama-they called folks in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, or went up to New Hampshire. Why? Because it wouldn’t matter if we turned out people here. Everything over 50% plus one is irrelevant. Obama and McCain spent 98% of their ad money in just 15 states. States that 65% of us don’t live in. Even now, the vast majority of Obama’s travel is to swing states.
The pernicious effect of the Electoral College extends to governing and not just campaigning. All recent Presidents’ travel schedules have been dominated by battleground states. Ari Fleisher was quoted in the Washington Post saying “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their President more.” How crazy is that? Voters in Massachusetts should see their President just as frequently as the voters in swing states. National Popular Vote would make it so that each voter, regardless of where he or she lives, will be considered equally valuable at the height of presidential campaign season and after. Battleground state status also affects disaster declarations according to a recent study by BU professor Andrew Reeves, “… A highly competitive state can expect to receive twice as many presidential disaster declarations than an uncompetitive state, holding all else constant including the damage caused by the disaster,” he says.
Increased voter participation. When a state moves from a safe state to a battleground-think Indiana and Virginia in the last election-turnout jumps among young voters, who are perhaps more aware of the impact (or lack thereof) of their vote. According to a study by Fair Vote based on CNN and exit polling data, young people were 17% more likely to vote if from a swing state than from a safe state.
The current system is an invitation to monkey business in battleground states. Think of it this way-with the Electoral College, a margin of, say, 500 votes can result in 27 electoral votes in Florida, and about 10% of the total needed to win. Take tens of thousands voters off the voter rolls because they have names that are similar, but not the same as, convicted felons but live in similar places, and viola a few thousand less votes for the other side. Or send out deceptive flyers and emails, and all the other dirty tricks that were used. Under a popular vote, 500 votes is exactly that-500 votes and less than 0.0005% of the votes needed to win. Not even a drop in the bucket. And certainly not worth the risks.
It is easy to think of far-fetched scenarios in an attempt to discredit this proposal, but there are good answers to all of them, not to mention most of these objections are possible-if not more likely-under the current system.
Tisei’s objections center around allegations that NPV is “unconstitutional” or a “circumvention” or “end run” around the Constitution. National Popular Vote is an application of two constitutional provisions, Article II section 1.2 and Article I section 10. How is it a circumvention to use the powers that the Constitution gives the states? The states have the plenary complete power to allocate electors however they see fit.
Massachusetts has chosen presidential electors in ten different ways over the years-Including by legislative appointment, by a combination of popular voting and legislative appointment, by congressional district, and by special elector districts. Massachusetts even “cancelled” elections twice in the 1800s when the people were likely to choose the “wrong” candidate and so the legislature appointed their own electors. Interestingly some conservative supporters prefer NPV to a constitutional amendment because it preserves the balance of power between the states and the federal government in a way that the latter would not.
Another common objection to the NPV compact is that Massachusetts would cast its electoral votes for the national popular vote winner instead of the winner in our state. Yes, that’s not only true, but it’s precisely the point of the whole thing. One country, voting together, everyone on an equal footing. The Electoral College stays in place, but as a rubber stamp for the popular vote in all 50 states. The election is after all on Election Day, not in mid-December when the electors cast their votes. We will still know who our state voted for and we will still have bragging rights if our state goes for the loser. But we will actually impact the election. Our votes, the ones from real people, will really matter. We will benefit from all the trappings of a real campaign. We’ll have candidate visits, rallies, and those pesky ads (yeah, I know not necessarily a plus, except for the local broadcasters). We will have GOTV efforts from both parties. And no more driving to New Hampshire for politicking except during primary season. We will also see our Presidents more once they’re in office. Our concerns will matter more. And hopefully, more people will realize that all elections-from the top all the way down-really will matter.
Just one more step.
*Enactment is an up-or-down final vote, unique to Massachusetts (or almost so) and a relic of the quill pen days. In the last legislative session, NPV passed both branches, was enacted in the House, but then the clock ran out before a final enactment vote in the Senate.