On Tuesday, the State of New York took a baby step—or maybe a giant leap!—toward making the United States of America something more closely resembling a modern democracy: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill joining up the Empire State to the National Popular Vote (N.P.V.) interstate compact. As I’ve explained many times (fifty-one, to be exact), N.P.V. is a way to elect our Presidents the way we elect our governors, our mayors, our senators and representatives, our state legislators, and everybody else: by totting up the voters’ votes—all of them—and awarding the job to whichever candidate gets the largest number. And it does this without changing a word of the Constitution.
Impossible, you say? No. Quite possible—even probable—and in time for 2020, if not for 2016.
Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes—a majority of the Electoral College—they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.
Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect.
When the framers were doing their framing, they had a hell of a time trying to figure out how to elect the “Chief Magistrate.” They ended up punting the job back to the states. The only guidance they provided was this (Article II, Section 1, italics mine): “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors,” the number being equal to the state’s congressional delegation.
A state legislature can “direct” this in any old manner it likes. It can decree an election, or it can decree a coin flip. It can “appoint” its electors itself, or it can pass a law leaving the choice to the people. It can direct that all its electors must go to the statewide winner—only three states did it that way in the first elections, but now forty-eight do, mainly because the party that controls the legislature seldom feels like sharing—or it can direct that all its electors go to the national winner. Of course, that would be a supremely dumb move for any one state to make all by itself. It would be tantamount to unilateral partisan disarmament. But, if a lot of states do it together, it’s a different story.
N.P.V. is a good idea for all sorts of high-minded civic reasons. When an election is for a single office and only one candidate can win, it’s obviously outrageous when the candidate who gets more votes somehow loses to the one who gets fewer. But that doesn’t happen very often—”only” four of our thirty-nine elected Presidents, including “only” one of the two most recent, made it to the White House despite the citizenry’s preference for somebody else. What’s more outrageous is what happens every time: four-fifths of the states are ignored in the general election.
If you live in one of those states, you see neither hide nor hair of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees, scarcely even in television commercials. Grassroots politics does not exist in your state as far as the Presidential campaign is concerned, because there’s no point in ringing your neighbors’ doorbells if the statewide outcome is a foregone conclusion. The relative power of money vs. people is magnified, because while campaign cash is raised everywhere, including your state, it gets funnelled exclusively into places like Ohio and Florida. And, between elections, states like yours get measurably less federal attention and federal money, per capita, than is lavished on the swingin’ few.
But it’s not just the voters in those spectator states who are ignored. It’s also the politicians, including the state legislators—no matter which party they belong to, no matter whether their state is red or blue, no matter whether the sure winner in their state is the candidate of their party or the other party. Either way, they’re nobodies. The National Popular Vote plan would make them somebodies—and that, perhaps more than the high-minded stuff, is why N.P.V. has a pretty good chance of actually happening.
A lot of people labor under the misapprehension that the Electoral College status quo is good for small states, or rural states, or states that don’t have big cities in them. Actually, the only states it’s good for, qua states, are swing states. The jurisdictions that have approved N.P.V. so far come in all sizes. Four are small (Rhode Island, Vermont, and Hawaii, plus the District of Columbia), three are medium-sized (Maryland, Washington, and Massachusetts), and four are large (New Jersey, Illinois, California, and now New York).
The discerning reader will have noticed that all eleven, besides being spectator states, are also blue states. The absence of red states from the roster is due largely to to a suspicion among Republican politicians and operatives that N.P.V. is somehow an attempt to get revenge for 2000. In opinion polls, Republican rank-and-filers, as distinct from Party professionals, strongly favor the idea of popular election. And a nontrivial number of Republican pros favor the plan itself.
Which brings us back to New York. When the state legislature approved N.P.V., last month, it drew the support of a majority of Republicans as well as of Democrats. In the Assembly, where the total vote was a hundred and two to thirty-three, the Republicans broke twenty-one to eighteen in favor. What was truly astounding, though, was the vote in the state Senate: fifty-seven to four. Just two senators from each party voted no, while twenty-seven Republicans and thirty Democrats voted yes.
Admittedly, New York is something of a special case. New York Republicans are a lot more conservative than they were in the era of Rockefeller, but many of them still prefer a nice tall gin-and-tonic to a Dixie cup of tea-flavored Kool-Aid. Also, the vote in New York wasn’t just bipartisan. It was quadripartisan, if that’s a word. New York’s election laws allow third parties to cross-endorse major-party candidates if they are so inclined. As a result, New York has a Working Families Party that can marshal votes and organizing muscle to nudge the Democrats to the left, while a statewide Conservative Party performs a similar service for the Republicans on the right. Both the W.F.P. and the Conservative Party endorsed the National Popular Vote bill. The Conservatives even “scored” the issue, meaning that they made it a factor in deciding whether or not to endorse particular Republicans.
As for Cuomo, he was always a good bet to sign the bill, but he did so a lot more quickly, and a lot more enthusiastically, than he had been expected to. No doubt he was partly motivated by the hope of mollifying reformers in general and the Working Families Party in particular, whose ire he has lately raised by torpedoing meaningful campaign-finance legislation and closing down a special commission investigating political corruption. But there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. As the statement that his office issued argues, N.P.V. is good for New York, good for the country, and good for democracy.
Next stop: Connecticut.