There is a sad truth about the upcoming election which is this: Our vote will count more than many of yours.
This has nothing to do with who we’re voting for, or the conviction behind our vote somehow measuring up while yours is found wanting. It has nothing to do with those fundamentally democratic things and everything to do with one simple fact of geographical import: We live in Ohio.
Four years ago when we lived in Nashville, we cursed this flaw in our electoral system. We wanted to be at ground zero in the great electoral conflict. We wanted those controversial attack ads playing on our local stations so we could see them with our own eyes rather than read about them in the paper. We imagined passionate, heartfelt debates breaking out in public spaces between differing parties as to the virtues of their candidate and party. Oh, to be in the heart of democracy!
Four years later, we are ambivalent. We try to tune out the ads. We lament that early voting (which began here yesterday, and which we think is a great idea) only stretches out the accusations of voter suppression or fraud from one day to six weeks. We resign ourselves to the fact that most of the country hates us because they are sick and tired of us stealing the spotlight and the candidates and thinking we’re somehow more American than anyone else because we reside in “the heartland.”
There is another, better way. It’s deceptively simple but frequently misunderstood. It’s called the National Popular Vote.
Does this mean we have to abolish the Electoral College? you ask. Wouldn’t we have to mess with the Constitution? Is this some kind of trickery that would give an advantage to one party or another? Isn’t the system we have in place, while flawed, basically what the Founding Fathers wanted?
No, no, no, and no. (Warning: From here on out, this post descends into detailed political wonkery that you may find unbelievably boring. Proceed at your own risk. Tomorrow we pledge to write a post involving poop, cats and US Weekly.)
The N.P.V. would reform the Electoral College but not do away with it. When (if) enough states which represent a majority of the Electoral College (270 votes) agreed to sign on to N.P.V., they would then all pledge their mass of electoral college votes to the candidate with the majority of the national popular vote. This would tweak the current winner-take-all feature of each state’s electoral vote (which contributes to our Ohio vote having the potential to make a difference while your non-Ohio vote means squat, unless you too live in a dreaded “battleground state”) and establish the fairer system of one person, one vote. This is how we already elect our governors and senators.
Enacting the N.P.V. would not “mess” with the Constitution. We lean toward the view that the Constitution, which does not include any mention of the Electoral College, was a framework for democracy rather than a holy document writ in stone. (In Constitutional jargon, we are not originalists. This is another way of saying that we are not on Antonin Scalia’s Christmas card list.) The N.P.V., again, would not abolish the Electoral College but reform it. Once more, we would defer to Hendrik Hertzberg on this point (and why the necessity of a Constitutional Amendment would be unnecessary to install a national popular vote).
The N.P.V. would not favor one party over another. Partisans who suspect it would somehow have altered recent elections (which it would have, in 2000, since Gore had the majority plurality of national votes) should note that it could easily have swung the other way in 2004, when a shift of 60,000 votes here in Ohio would have given Kerry an Electoral College victory despite an even greater discrepancy in the popular vote than in 2000. (Gore won the popular election in 2000 by roughly 544,000 votes. Bush won the popular election in 2004 by more than three million.) What is partisan about every vote across the country counting the same?
Finally, there is the suspicion that arises anytime one pushes to change what is thought of as “tradition.” This is true everywhere (notably in churches, where “tradition” is often code for “God’s will”). Tradition, somebody once said, is the way things were done when you arrived on the scene. Did the Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom of how the world would look two centuries after they passed on, really intend for a national election to take place almost entirely in the confines of four battleground states (or, for that matter, for Iowa and New Hampshire to have such sway in the primary process)? Did James Madison, who believed a state’s senatorial representation should be proportional to its population, really think we Ohioans should reside at the center of the electoral universe? Do we count more than you do? We hope not. It’s too late for the N.P.V. in 2008, but 2012 will be here before you know it.