The Electoral College Reform Movement Made Great Strides This Month, But Is It Enough?
by Adam Eichen, Equal Citizens Communications Strategist
Last week, with little fanfare, Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy signed a bill that officially adds his state to the National Popular Vote Compact.
The compact, which only goes into effect when states totaling 270 electoral votes legally enter into it, allocates all participating states’ electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the national popular vote. In other words, all the states in the compact collectively agree to give their electoral votes to the country’s most popular candidate, regardless of the results in any individual state. The election will therefore be determined by national popular vote with no constitutional amendment required.
The compact had widespread public support in the state: with 92 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of unaffiliated voters in support.
“The vote of every American citizen should count equally, yet under the current system, voters from sparsely populated states are awarded significantly more power than those from states like Connecticut…This is fundamentally unfair,” explained Governor Malloy when the bill passed the CT state senate.
The electoral vote total of the compact’s members now reaches 172. The other members of the compact are California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state, and Washington, D.C. Approximately a decade after Maryland became the first state to enter into the compact, reformers are now almost 64% of the way towards their final goal.
While the states in the compact thus far are all traditionally Democratic party strongholds, national popular vote appeals to conservatives, too. The Connecticut bill, for example, passed with Republican support, and some national GOP leaders, such as former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, are on board as well. The compact has passed in at least one house in eleven other states, including conservative states such as Oklahoma and Arizona.
With Connecticut’s vote in favor of the National Popular Vote Compact, we’re one step closer to fixing our democracy. But there are major reasons not to become complacent.
The Tyranny of Swing States and the Urgency of Reform
As is well known, all but two states allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Under winner-take-all, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state takes all the Electoral College votes of that state. That means even if the candidate won by just a single ballot, he or she gets every single Electoral College vote from that state. And if you don’t vote for the candidate who happens to win your state, your vote will count for nothing in the Electoral College.
States originally adopted winner-take-all in order to magnify their own voting power, but collectively, it creates a social dilemma where the election results are largely determined by a handful of states with competitive races, and there’s zero incentive for candidates to campaign in states where the margin-of-victory is large. In the 2016 presidential election, for instance, the fourteen swing states received 95% of candidates appearances and 99% of campaign spending.
Those numbers mean one simple thing: If you don’t live in one of those fourteen states, your vote just doesn’t matter. The candidates didn’t spend a dime trying to get your vote because your vote wasn’t even worth a dime to them. And the neglect transcends party/ideological affiliations. As Dean Murray, a New York State Assembly and Tea Partier puts it, “Whether you align yourself with the Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Greens, whether you are conservative, liberal, or moderate, the candidates and the campaign will pass you by unless you live in one of a handful of states.”
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that non-swing state voters feel less inclined to vote. According to Nonprofit Vote, voter turnout in non-battleground states is on average 5–8 percentage points lower than in battleground states. Millions of dollars have and will be spent to increase voter turnout, but until we fix this grotesquely unequal representation that saps the will of non-swing state voters to participate, efforts to increase political engagement will continue to be a money-draining uphill battle in most states.
This system also produces presidential candidates who are obsessed with a segment of our population that does not represent America all that well. Swing states represent just 35% of the U.S. population. They are older and whiter than the rest of America, and many of their short-term priorities are in conflict with our long-term national interests. As Making Every Vote Count, an organization that promotes the National Popular Vote compact, points out, there were over 4,000 articles on coal miners published during the 2016 election, even though there are only about 75,000 coal miners in the U.S. On the other hand, there are 2 million truck drivers and 5 million retail workers in the country who got hardly any attention, all because coal miners were a strategic demographic in key swing states.
Even after candidates become presidents, they continue to bend over backwards to pander to swing state voters, and the effects of the policy distortions range from unfair to devastating. Between 1996 and 2008, swing states received approximately 5.7% more federal grant dollars than non-swing states. And because several key swing states’ economies depend on fossil fuel production, our federal energy policies will continue to favor fossil fuel consumption over renewables as long as swing states continue to hold the power in choosing our presidents. Meanwhile, we ceded the global lead in clean energy investments to China, at a time when the window of opportunity to alter the course of climate change is closing fast.
Perhaps even more importantly, by concentrating the voting power to a handful of states, our presidential elections became an easy target for foreign interferences. As law professor Josh Douglas suggests: “the unique nature of the Electoral College, with the effect of making only a few states matter, means that it is presumably easier for a foreign actor to target just those states.”
Turns out this is not merely hypothetical. Voter registration databases in swing states were actually targeted in 2016. According to Senator Mark Warner, Russian hackers “actively tried to at least test the vulnerabilities of 21 states’ electoral systems.” Among these affected states were Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — swing states that largely determine the outcome of the 2016 election. As foreign hackers keep getting better, while we continue to use voting machines that run on Windows 2000, how many more secure presidential elections can we hold before the unthinkable occurs?
The tyranny of swing states opens our presidential elections to vulnerabilities that could lead to catastrophic outcomes, and the need for reform is more urgent than ever. With the National Popular Vote compact facing a purple/red wall that unfortunately might take decades to surmount, we simply can’t afford to wait that long. The overall Electoral College reform effort must encompass a broader strategy — that’s why Equal Citizens initiated a legal challenge to the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes at the state level. We hope that this multi pronged strategy will allow us to repair our broken presidential election system before it’s too late. Go to equalvotes.us to learn more about this legal project.