What if we just counted all the votes for president and show who win?
If you were designing a system to elect the political leader of a major constitutional republic in 2020, how would you do it?
The answer is easy, or at least it should be: by a national popular vote — a system in which all votes count the same and the winner is the candidate who gets the most.
But of course that’s not how we do it in the United States. Here, the president is chosen by the 538 members of the Electoral College — a 233-year-old institution cobbled together at the last minute by a few dozen men who had never elected a president before, and built for a country where the vast majority of people were denied the right to vote.
Today nearly all adults are eligible to vote, and yet because of the Electoral College, their votes do not count the same, and the candidate who gets the most can, and does, lose. Even when that doesn’t happen, the Electoral College still radically distorts our democracy.
“The first thing you do is eliminate states completely,” Jeremy Bird, a field director for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, told me. “Which states are so blue, which are so red — they’re not going to have an impact. You do that and, automatically, 100 million Americans are out of the conversation.”
Mr. Bird was referring to the so-called safe states, where the outcome of the vote is not in doubt. Every four years, 40 to 45 states are considered safe for one party or the other, even though in all of them there are large numbers of voters who cast a ballot for the losing party. In 2016, for example, 43 percent of Texans voted for Hillary Clinton, while 41 percent of New Jersey voters picked Donald Trump. When the electors cast their presidential ballots that year, it was as if none of those voters existed.
Why? It’s not the Electoral College by itself, but the state winner-take-all rule. In each of the 48 states that use this rule (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions), the candidate who wins the most votes gets all of that state’s electors, whether the margin is one hundred votes or one hundred thousand.
The winner-take-all rule means that the states that matter to the campaigns are the handful of so-called battleground states — this year, they include Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida — where the electorate is evenly divided, and the result is too close to predict. Both major parties spend virtually all of their resources trying to win over the voters in these states and for good reason. Why waste time and money stumping for support that won’t translate into any extra electoral votes?
The problem is that only about 20 percent of Americans live in a battleground state. The other 80 percent might as well be invisible when it comes to choosing their leader. These hundred million or more voters live in “the land of the ignored,” a term I heard from Reed Hundt, who served as F.C.C. chairman under President Bill Clinton and now runs an organization that argues for the popular vote.
Ignoring voters is the opposite of what the president is supposed to do, as the only elected official in America whose job it is to represent everyone equally, wherever they live. This is why the winner-take-all rule is so destructive to our nation’s politics and culture. It deforms our political relationship to one another, creating a false picture of a country carved up into bright red and blue blocs, when in fact we are purple from coast to coast. It undermines policies with broad public support. It increases mistrust of government and decreases voter turnout. And it warps how presidential candidates campaign and how presidents govern.
“The way you can get elected in the U.S. is what shapes the campaigns,” Mr. Hundt told me. “The campaigns are what shape the candidates. And the candidates are what shape the presidency.”
So how would a national popular vote serve us better?
In the course of writing a book on the history of the Electoral College and the case for a national popular vote, I spoke to dozens of campaign managers, field directors, ground-game coordinators and other top officials from Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns of the last few decades. I figured if anyone could envision how a national popular vote election might play out, it’s the people who have devoted their professional lives to winning national elections.
Almost to a person, they said they would far prefer to run to win a popular-vote election.
“It would expand the map dramatically,” said Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s chief strategist in 2004. “Instead of having five, six or seven key states in 2020, you’d have a concerted campaign in at least 40. You’d still campaign in Ohio, and in Michigan, and in Wisconsin, but also in Texas, California, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana. You’d add red states and blue states to the mix that both candidates would have to campaign in.”
Both parties would work to rack up votes in places where they know they will do well — cities and inner-ring suburbs for Democrats; outer-ring suburbs, exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. At the same time, they would also work to get out the vote everywhere — if not to win outright, then at least to lose by less.
Mr. Dowd recalled the day in 2004 when he realized how much the existing system encouraged narrow, unrepresentative campaign strategies. “I said to myself, ‘Why are we doing all these national polls? Why are we talking to voters in 40 states that we’re not even competing in?’ We didn’t run a single national poll in the year of the re-election campaign. What difference does it make?”
“Practically, what that does is, whatever the national dialogue is doesn’t matter. And that one thing — basically saying no more national polls and only polls in five or six or seven states — is really detrimental to democracy.”
An expanded electoral map would generate at least two additional benefits, said Mr. Dowd and other campaign officials: more public participation and more political moderation.
First, participation. When every vote matters, more people vote. This isn’t a theory; it happens in every presidential election. In 2016, 10 of the 14 highest-turnout states were battleground states. According to FairVote, an electoral reform group that pushes for a national popular vote, battleground state turnout averaged 66 percent in 2012, nine points higher than in safe states. If the national turnout average rose to match that of the current battleground states, as many as 17 million more Americans would go to the polls on Election Day.
Adding that many people to the electorate would also drive the buildup of state-level party organizations. “If one vote in Mississippi matters as much as a vote in Oregon, or one in Iowa as much as one in Kentucky, Democrats would have to have a campaign organization in Texas and Republicans would have to have a campaign organization in California,” Mr. Dowd told me. “You’re basically thinking, if this thing’s going to be won by ten or fifteen thousand votes, you’re not going to want to leave any place unorganized.”
David Plouffe, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, estimated that in 2020 about one million swing-state voters are persuadable one way or the other. “But if you open it up to the whole country, then you’re probably talking about five to seven million” voters. Mr. Plouffe had a warning, though. “A progressive should be careful to think that this is some panacea.” Once both parties start appealing to voters everywhere, he said, it scrambles the traditional political calculus in unpredictable ways.
The second big benefit of a truly national electoral map is political moderation. Right now, candidates don’t have enough of an incentive to appeal to voters broadly — and that cripples their ability to lead. “It is absurd that you have someone who is elected by not campaigning in all the country who then has to govern the entire country,” said Stuart Stevens, a veteran Republican strategist who worked on the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
“It’s much more destructive than people realize,” Mr. Stevens told me. “I’ve sat in these rooms. It is really antithetical to the notion of getting elected president of the United States when you’re a Republican and you automatically write off one out of every nine voters.”
Presidents of both parties do this, of course, but President Trump has taken it to the extreme, as he does with most things. He doesn’t just ignore the safe Democratic states like New York and California; he openly attacks and punishes them. Since he knows he has no chance of winning those states’ electoral votes, he has nothing to lose by sticking it to them, to the delight of his base.
In the process, however, he abandons the millions of Republican voters who live in those states — a lost platoon in our electoral-cultural war. “It shows the absurdity of it,” Mr. Stevens said. “When you attack California, you’re talking about the second largest group of your own voters!”
It’s not just a matter of hurting voters’ feelings. When campaigns have to put resources toward winning a state, they draw attention to the needs of that state, which can have concrete benefits for the people living there. Sitting presidents have even more power to bestow these benefits, in the form of federal grants and dollars, which they send disproportionately to the states that are decisive to their re-election.
Between 1996 and 2008, battleground states received 7.6 percent more federal grants than other states and about 5.7 percent more grant money — and both numbers went up when an election was approaching, according to John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who analyzed nearly $1 trillion in presidentially controlled federal grants.
The grants are “an ideal electoral tool,” Mr. Hudak writes, because they allow presidents to engage in their own version of pork-barrel politics, funneling money to key electoral states and localities and generating publicity for the White House.
You can see the same battleground-state effect in policymaking. Federal laws and policies are influenced by multiple factors, but it’s hard not to notice patterns. Consider Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs: Protectionism isn’t popular among free-trade Republicans, but it is in the Midwest industrial states that pushed Mr. Trump over the top in 2016, and may well hold the key to his re-election in 2020.
Or consider Mr. Obama’s automaker bailout in 2009: unpopular in most of the country, but not in the upper Midwest — especially in states like Ohio and Michigan — home to many of the more than one million jobs the bailout saved and to dozens of electoral votes that Mr. Obama depended on for his re-election.
If candidates knew that they needed the most votes in the country, rather than the most votes in a few key districts in a few battleground states, they would base their appeals on what voters wanted rather than on where they happened to live. This could lead to a less polarized electorate, as candidates press for policies with broad national support, from immigration and health-care reform to background gun checks and protecting the environment.
Joel Benenson, a Democratic consultant who worked on both Obama campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, told me, “Think about what it would really mean to have a Republican Party that suddenly had to compete for votes of Latinos and African- Americans and LGBTQ voters and suburban women. How about Democratic candidates having an economic revival plan for rural America? People in coal country know coal isn’t coming back, so how about a real economic plan for those communities so they can raise their kids there?”
Stuart Stevens believes that this process could be especially salutary for Republicans, who have grown reliant on older, whiter voters at the expense of a big-tent coalition. “I think it would help Republicans if they knew they had to campaign all over the country,” he said. Right now, the Republican Party “can exist and flourish as basically a whites-only party. I think that’s incredibly corrosive.”
“If you have to communicate with a broader swath of Americans, how could that possibly be bad for the country?” Mr. Benenson said. “You know what voters really hate? This is the lesson of the last election: They hate being ignored.” www.thinksfield.com
By Jesse Wegman
Mr. Wegman is a member of the editorial board and the author of “Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.”
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