Written by Dan Amira for New York News and Features
Many people became acutely attuned to the drawbacks of the Electoral College when Al Gore received over a half-million more votes in 2000 than George W. Bush yet lost the Electoral College, and hence, the election. This system seemed unfair, illogical, archaic. Now a movement gradually picking up steam across the country would ensure that such an outcome never happens again by effectively killing the Electoral College. And after a vote in the State Senate last week, New York is on the precipice of signing up.
The 2000 race was hardly the first time the Electoral College produced an awkward — some would say undemocratic — result. The winner of the popular vote has lost the presidential election four times throughout American history. The Electoral College once ended in a tie, and in this unlikely but still-possible nightmare scenario, the House of Representatives — just 435 people who were elected for various unrelated reasons — selects the next president. With these historical headaches in mind, Stanford computer scientist Dr. John Koza and lawyer Barry Fadem founded an organization in 2006, National Popular Vote, Inc., to spearhead a national campaign to rid America of its flawed method for choosing its president. By design, Constitutional amendments are almost impossible to ratify, so they bypassed the process altogether with a simple yet ingenious idea: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
The Constitution gives states the power to allocate their electoral votes however they choose. Currently, nearly every state awards its electoral votes to the presidential candidate that receives the most votes within the state. But states that sign on to the compact would agree to award their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the overall national popular vote. The compact would only take effect once states with a combined 270 electoral votes among them — the amount needed to win the presidency — had joined. Assuming the arrangement overcomes the inevitable court challenges, it wouldn’t matter how the rest of the states dole out their electoral votes. The winner of the popular vote will automatically win the Electoral College as well.
Although interest in killing the Electoral College grew out of the 2000 debacle, it really isn’t a partisan issue. The system can screw Democrats as easily as it can screw Republicans, and numerous GOP politicians, including former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson and former Illinois governor Jim Edgar, have joined National Popular Vote. The more natural dividing line on the issue is between swing states and reliably red or blue states. Every four years, presidential candidates lavish attention (and, more important, campaign promises) on a dozen or so swing states whose electoral votes are up for grabs. The Electoral College is a fantastic system for Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other closely contested states. But candidates are compelled by electoral math to almost completely ignore the rest.
Tired of being overlooked, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, all consistently blue, have already pledged their 77 electoral votes to the compact. Which brings us to New York. It’s about as far from a swing state as you can get — it swung to the Democratic side in 1988 and has stayed there ever since — and consequently, candidates don’t bother coming here to campaign except to solicit cash from Wall Street. For purely self-interested reasons, helping to abolish the Electoral College seems like a no-brainer for New York. And, as in the rest of the country, the idea is extremely popular. A December 2008 poll of 800 New York voters showed a whopping 79 percent support for electing the president based on the popular vote.
It’s received broad backing in the State Senate too. Last year, a bill to join the compact sailed through the chamber on a bi-partisan, 52-7 vote, and last week the Senate passed the bill again by an overwhelming 47-13 margin. Though Governor Andrew Cuomo hasn’t taken a public stance on the legislation, Dr. Koza, the National Popular Vote co-founder, tells us that he has “indications that he would be supportive.”
That leaves the Assembly as the only remaining obstacle, but not because the bill is unpopular there. The bill’s sponsor, Bronx Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz, tells us that if the bill came to the floor for a vote, it would pass. In fact, 76 Assembly members, constituting a majority of the chamber, have signed on as co-sponsors.
The problem has been securing an opportunity to actually vote on the bill, a decision made by the all-powerful and often unyielding Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. With only a few days left until the legislative session comes to an end on June 20, Dinowitz hasn’t received any indication that Silver will allow a vote to take place. It turns out that, despite the support of a majority of the Democratic caucus, Silver is less than enthusiastic about the compact. “He has difficulty with the idea that presidential candidates don’t campaign in New York, so to that extent, he supports the idea of the legislation,” Silver spokesman Mike Whyland told us. “Whether that actual legislation is the ultimate answer, I guess I would just say is unclear.” Asked whether the speaker plans to hold a vote on the bill, Whyland said that was also unclear.
If the bill does manage to pass, it would be the biggest victory for the National Popular Vote movement to date, not only because New York, with its 29 electoral votes, would represent the largest signatory of the compact so far, but also because of the publicity it would lend to a movement that still flies largely under the radar. “Anything that happens in New York tends to get an enormous amount of attention nationally,” Koza tells us. “So it would be extremely helpful.” New York likely wouldn’t be the compact’s biggest get for long, though; California’s legislature will probably approve the legislation soon, and unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed it in 2006 and 2008, Governor Jerry Brown supports it. New York and California together would push the compact’s electoral-vote total well past the halfway mark.
But like so many pieces of legislation before it, it’s all in the hands of Silver. And if the bill fails to make it through the Assembly yet again, it’ll be difficult for Dinowitz to comprehend. “I really have trouble understanding why somebody would object to the first-place finisher actually winning an election,” said Dinowitz, sounding sincerely bewildered. “Every election, from class president in fourth grade to assemblyman to Congress member, you name it, the one with the most votes wins. The only exception is president of the United States, the most important elected position on the planet.”