When health care reform was being debated this year, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi infamously declared, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Now a liberal California group is attempting to do the same thing: Pass a bill first, ask questions later. This time, it’s the National Popular Vote (NPV) group, and they want state legislatures to pass anti-Electoral College legislation that they have proposed, yet they have not answered questions about the logistical complications of the solution that they have devised.
NPV’s aim is to create an interstate compact among several states that would require participating states to give their entire slates of presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote. This is a change from the current system in most states: Usually, states award their electors to the winner of the states’ own popular vote, without regard to the outcome in other states. NPV’s compact would go into effect when states holding 270 electoral votes (enough to win the presidency) agreed to the plan. If this were to happen, the Electoral College would essentially be eliminated.
Five states have already approved NPV, and Massachusetts is on the verge of becoming the sixth. The State House approved the measure in June, and the Senate approved the measure late last week, despite Senator Richard Tisei’s tough fight against it. Two votes remain to formally enact the bill, and it will then be forwarded to Governor Deval Patrick for his signature. NPV was also recently approved by the New York Senate and is pending in the New York Assembly.
New York and others should reject the path recently chosen by the Massachusetts legislature. NPV has at least one fundamental flaw that should bother even those who are otherwise opposed to the Electoral College: It does nothing to address the 51 sets of currently existing state election codes (the states plus D.C.) on the books. These codes will remain in place and cause confusion and litigation after NPV is enacted.
Today, each state conducts its own presidential election in partial reliance on its own set of local election laws. These laws may differ from those of sister states, but the differences are irrelevant at the national level. At the end of the day, a voter in Massachusetts does not care about the laws governing California’s election. He is voting with (or against) other Massachusetts voters in a contest for Massachusetts’s electors. Similarly, California will hold its own separate contest. NPV changes this practice. It continues to rely on 51 existing sets of local laws, but it pretends that it can cram all these differing processes into one coherent national outcome. It can’t. The result will be utter chaos.
As one small example, NPV could prevent full recounts from being held. No recount could be conducted, for instance, if no individual state statute was triggered—even if only a few hundred votes separate the top two contenders. Or perhaps a few states could conduct recounts while the rest of the states watch from the sidelines. Recounting states may not agree on recount logistics, such as how to count a hanging chad. NPV claims that it is trying to make “every vote equal.” It will not achieve that goal by throwing voters into one pool for election purposes, and then allowing their votes to be tallied differently.
When asked about these side effects of their plan, NPV brushes the issue off completely. In their book, for instance, NPV’s architects simply state that “the personnel and procedures for a nationwide recount are already in place because every state is always prepared to conduct a statewide recount after any election.” But, with NPV in place, these varying procedures are the problem, not the solution. Perhaps a more revealing answer was offered on Twitter early last week.
During the debate about NPV in Massachusetts, this author pressed one of its defenders, Common Cause of Massachusetts, to explain the logistical problems with NPV. Common Cause replied that if such problems arise “it can be addressed.” Later, @CommonCauseMA added, “we should have faith that law is correctable.”
It will be addressed? The law is correctable? Do NPV or its supporters assume that further statutory corrections will be necessary once its plan is enacted? Apparently. But, in echoes of Pelosi, we have to enact NPV before we know what we will really get at the end of the day. For now, NPV is most interested in getting its foot in the door without raising undue alarm among voters.
Perhaps NPV thinks that a new, centralized federal election statutory regime will be necessary at some point in the future. Setting aside the discussion about where the boundary lies between state and federal authority to regulate the elections of presidential electors, such laws could not be enacted without the compliance of legislators from the majority of states who did not see fit to enact NPV in the first place. How arrogant of NPV supporters to think they can force the rest of the nation into a corner like that. NPV creates a ton of logistical problems, with little or no warning. The rest of us are then forced to swallow federal laws that we never needed or wanted, simply to clean up NPV’s mess.
NPV did not deserve support in Massachusetts, particularly when it wouldn’t take time to fully explain itself to the American people. NPV is already pushing its legislation in other states, beginning with New York. It should be swiftly rejected.
Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.