Since the November presidential election, in which for the fifth time in American history the winner of the popular vote did not become president, the electoral system has been heavily debated among political groups.
On Feb. 16, the Democrats of the Red Rocks invited former law professor Charles Schudson to speak about the history and effects of the electoral college, and debate if the country would be better off without it.
On Monday, Feb. 20, the League of Women Voters partnered with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and dedicated a luncheon to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The meeting was held at Yavapai College Sedona Center. Constantin Querard, founder of the campaign consulting firm Grassroots Partners, was invited to explain how this alternative electoral system works and what its implementation would change.
Right at the beginning, Querard stressed that the NPVC does not abolish the Electoral College, which would require a constitutional amendment, but is rather an agreement between individual states. In a presidential election, states that have joined the compact award their electors to the candidate who has gained the majority in the national popular vote, instead of to the candidate who gained the majority of votes in the state.
Opponents have criticized this method, as the NPVC could force a state to override the majority will of its voters, which calls state identity into question. This issue also arose during discussion with the audience after Querard’s presentation.
The NPVC has been passed in 10 states: Washington, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and in the District of Columbia.
In Arizona, the bill to enter the compact passed the House of Representatives in February 2016, however, the Senate has yet to confirm that decision.
For the NPVC to take effect nationally, it would have to be passed by enough states to equal 270 electoral votes. So far, the states that have enacted the compact equal 165 electoral votes, which account for 61 percent of the votes needed.
Querard said the most common question that surrounds the NPVC is, “Are we even allowed to do this?” He pointed to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which determines that “each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” The states are free to choose how they select their electors, which makes the compact constitutional.
Querard explained that historically, states have changed their methods many times, switching between, for example, electors being appointed by the governor, the creation of electoral districts, or the currently most prevalent winner-take-all system. He said that Massachusetts has altered its electoral system 13 times.
However, opponents of the NPVC have argued it’s not that easy. Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 — also referred to as the Compact Clause of the Constitution — dictates that “no State shall, without the Consent of Congress, [...] enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power.” In the past, courts have specified that a compact requires congressional consent if it threatens the federal supremacy over the states. It is still being debated if the NPVC falls under this category. Opponents assume that should the compact take national effect, the case would be taken to the Supreme Court.
Another issue that often arises in the debate over whether to change the current electoral system is the desire to keep in line with the original will of the Founding Fathers.
“Originalists want to do what the Founding Fathers did, but they often don’t know how the Founding Fathers did it,” Querard said.
He thinks the Founding Fathers simply intended the states to do what was best for them.
To illustrate his point, he explained that during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, one big concern was to prevent the states from losing power to the federal government. There were three measures that were introduced to achieve this goal: The state legislation retained the power of redistricting, was able to appoint members to the Senate before the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1912 and could choose how to select its electors. This ensured that Congress stayed attentive to the state’s needs, and that the state’s power was manifested in presidential elections.
“The Founding Fathers would be gobsmacked at how states have allowed for them to be ignored for decades and decades without doing something about it,” Querard said.
The fact that some states receive more attention during presidential campaigns than others was Querard’s main reason to support the NPVC. He provided the statistics for the 2012 general election campaign, which showed that in a swing state such as Florida, Obama and Romney combined spent roughly $175 million on TV advertisements. In traditionally Republican or Democratic states like Utah and Wyoming or Vermont and Massachusetts, the spending for TV ads was virtually zero.
Querard stressed that the focus on swing states does not stop after the election, but is also reflected in presidential policies, since the promises made during the campaign now have to be kept and also because the president is essentially already campaigning for his reelection as soon as he takes office.
He brought the examples of Medicare benefits being expanded in Florida, No Child Left Behind being implemented after voters in Ohio wanted federal involvement in education, ethanol subsidies being put into effect to win over Iowa, and steel tariffs being enacted to secure Pennsylvania. Because presidential campaigns focus so much on swing states, national issues are largely disregarded.
On the other hand, opponents of the NPVC are concerned that the compact will shift campaign attention from swing-states to areas with the highest population, which would leave rural regions ignored and create the same current problem, merely in a different form.
Querard also addressed concerns over voter fraud and illegal immigration. Opponents fear that voter fraud and recounts, such as the one in Florida in 2000, would become a nationwide phenomenon, instead of being contained to swing-states. Querard thinks that because a national popular vote shifts the focus from a small number of swing states to the entire nation, voter fraud would be much harder if not impossible. The amount of stolen votes that would change the outcome of the election becomes too large. On illegal immigration, Querard pointed out that the NPVC would eradicate any influence of undocumented immigrants on the election, since only citizens are allowed to vote.
Lastly, Querard stated that a national popular vote would have a big effect on voter turnout, since the current system discourages voting in traditionally Democratic and Republican states. With a national popular vote, every vote that is cast would directly count toward the election of the president, which may spur more citizens to engage in politics and participate in democracy.
Querard concluded, “Right now, there are so many reasons for people not to vote. Why don’t we give them a reason to vote?”
By Steph Berens/Larson Newspapers