Cato Institute argues against NPVIC

The Cato Institute has an article arguing against the NPVIC. What I find interesting is that they use arguments that I haven’t seen a million times elsewhere:

Direct election of Electors: they argue that one reason the 1960 election was so close is that in Alabama, voters explicitly elected Electors, not presidential candidates. And that several of the chosen Electors were not pledged to any candidate. Under these circumstances, there’s no such thing as Alabama’s popular vote for president.

In this case, of course, the Secretary of State of each NPVIC state would, I presume, count the votes of people who voted for a pledged Elector as a vote for the candidate the Elector is pledged to vote for, and votes for unpledged Electors as “none of the above”: not votes for any presidential candidate in particular, so they don’t add to anyone’s tally.

Of course, while this sort of thing is both legal and in line with how I imagine the Founders imagined elections should be run, I can’t imagine any state adopting such a system any time in the foreseeable future: too many people are too used to the idea of voting for a presidential candidate to step away from that.

The Compact’s language simply assumes the existence of a traditional popular vote total in each state but it provides no details on how that is to be ascertained.

This is true. On one hand, yes, this seems like a flaw, since it provides little or no guidance in ambiguous or problematic cases. On the other hand, it gives a lot of power to states, the “laboratories of democracy”, which can come up with their own solutions.

Other shenanigans. North Dakota has already introduced a bill to publish a rough vote count, but withhold the precise vote totals until after the Compact states have to come up with a national vote winner. Yes, this is a clear jab at the NPVIC.Again, it seems the sensible approach for a Compact Secretary of State would be to take the minimum values of the rough counts and add those counts to each candidate’s totals.

In this particular case, North Dakota doesn’t have enough voters to make a difference in any but the tightest elections, but things could be different if a state like Texas or Florida tried to pull this. Of course, if Secretaries of State adopt the strategy I suggested above, that means that Texas or Florida would be reducing its vote counts (and its influence in the election) just to thumb its nose at a plan it doesn’t like. Which is not to say it couldn’t happen.

More generally, it seems likely that state legislatures will play silly games to try to undermine the NPVIC by blurring the vote count, making the Compact difficult to enforce, or otherwise. This could lead to some chaotic elections as states scramble to figure out how to come up with a popular vote when not all states are cooperating. In the long term, though, if the NPVIC passes, I suspect that people will quickly become enamored of directly voting for president, and won’t want to turn back the clock, not even to own the party they dislike.

Ranked Choice Voting. Maine apparently already used ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, and this does seem to present a special challenge.

I don’t think this is worth worrying about, though, since Maine already has to pick electors, which means they have to have a way of coming up with a final vote. I haven’t looked into this, but after some number of elimination rounds, some candidate gets N votes, where N is greater than 50%, and gets some number of Electoral Vote pledges. Maine also has a split system where not all of its Electors vote the same way, but however it’s decided, it has to boil down to “N votes > M votes”. So just add up the Ns to get Maine’s contribution to the national popular vote.

Cato’s objection, however, is a bit different: whoever wins the final round might actually end up with more votes than any of the first-choice candidates. So that creates an incentive for a candidate to not try too hard in Maine, and actually try to come out #3 or #4, rather than #1.

IMHO this seems fantastic. I seriously doubt that anyone can campaign with that kind of laser-precise skill. Candidates already have a hard enough time trying to be #1. I don’t know how you’d even manage to try to be #3 without seriously risking losing the election altogether.

But beyond that, ranked-choice voting is designed so that the candidates who come out ahead after several rounds are the compromise candidates that no one is especially excited about, but that everyone can live with. I would expect to see people like Bernie Sanders, Lyndon Larouche, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump — candidates that people feel very strongly about — to be at the top of ballots, and people like Joe Biden and Mitt Romney further down, under “I’ll settle for this person” rather than “I really want this person to be president.” So to the extent that Cato’s argument is true, it would seem that ranked-choice voting would tend to boost consensus or compromise candidates in Maine. And that’s fine.

Inconsistent results. The worst-case scenario envisioned by the Cato article is one in which different member states can’t agree on who won the popular vote, and allocate their Electors in an inconsistent manner. Once the dust settles, and the national popular vote is agreed on, it might be that the national popular vote winner didn’t get the presidency. I agree that that would be bad, but it also seems that the odds of this happening seem to be lower than one in nine, which means it’s already an improvement over the current system.

Popular Vote: Majority Rule Is Disenfranchisement

Here’s a rather breathless letter to the editor of the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer, promising dire consequences if we start electing presidents the same way we elect governors, senators, mayors, and school board members:

The Los Angeles Times editorial (Feb. 17 in the Reformer) would like to disenfranchise more than half our nation by ending the electoral college, validating only “mob rule” elections dominated by metropolitan area voters and perhaps a portion of their rural allies. Vermont’s legislature endorsed the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” which would effectively disenfranchise a sizable portion of Vermont voters, as actually happened prior to that in the 2016 election when our three electors all voted for one popular candidate, even though the Vermont voters were divided 2 to 1. So one third of our voters were ignored entirely.

Dave Garrecht, Guilford, VT

Mr. Garrecht seems confused with worry. For one thing:

disfranchise [ dis-fran-chahyz ]:
verb (used with object), dis·fran·chised, dis·fran·chis·ing.
1. to deprive (a person) of a right of citizenship, as of the right to vote

No one is talking about taking away anyone’s right to vote. What he’s upset about is not getting his way, as he demonstrates in the rest of the sentence:

as actually happened prior to that in the 2016 election when our three electors all voted for one popular candidate, even though the Vermont voters were divided 2 to 1. So one third of our voters were ignored entirely.

No, no one ignored anyone. It’s just that the minority lost. That’s how it works in a democracy. Get used to it.

He mentions “mob rule”, as do a lot of other people, so that’s worth addressing. Wikipedia’s definition seems as good as any I’ve seen:

Ochlocracy […] or mob rule is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, meaning “the fickle crowd”, from which the English term “mob” originally was derived in the 1680s.

Now, no one is condoning, or even suggesting, intimidating anyone. So really, the biggest fear worth addressing is that the majority might vote to take away the rights of the minority, as in the old quotation about how “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.” It’s worth reading the context, in Marvin Simkin’s article in the Los Angeles Times:

Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote. Those rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights and in our California Constitution. Voters and politicians alike would do well to take a look at the rights we each hold, which must never be chipped away by the whim of the majority.

This problem has been recognized for a long time, and that’s why the first ten amendments to the US Constitution spell out a list of rights that can’t be taken away by a simple vote. And nobody’s trying to take that away here.

In short, Mr. Garrecht is upset over nothing. No one’s taking away anyone’s vote. If anything, the popular vote would make more people’s vote significant. And really, if you’re supporting an unfair system for fear of what other people might do to you if their vote counts the same as yours, what does that say about you?

Counting Every Vote Will Nullify Your Vote

An editorial at warns of dire consequences if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact passes:

The House of Delegates voted to have the Old Dominion join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement that would force Virginia’s 13 electors to vote for the candidate chosen by the national popular vote.

Joining this compact would have nullified Virginia’s voice in this most important of all elections, enabled the tyranny of the majority, and upended a system that has worked well for 233 years.

This is an argument I’ve seen elsewhere; particularly the “nullify” part of it. As I see it, it’s just seizing on the more eyebrow-raising part of the NPVIC–the idea that a state’s Electoral Votes will sometimes be given to a candidate who didn’t win that state’s popular vote–and presenting it as though it were a new idea.

The word “nullified” makes it sound as though Virginia’s voters would be deprived of their chance to participate in the election. In fact, if this situation were to arise, it would simply mean that the majority of Virginia’s voters would have lost the election, something that has happened any number of times.

In fact, a popular vote would achieve the reverse of what the author fears. Let’s say that the Compact passes, with states totaling 270 Electoral Votes signing on, but Virginia holds out and doesn’t sign on.

In the next election, the winning strategy changes: instead of looking at states as blocks and assuming that California will vote Democratic and Texas will vote Republican, candidates will have to appeal to broad swaths of people: suddenly the Republicans in California and the Democrats in Texas are worth reaching out to. And so are the voters in Virginia, be they Democrat, Republican, third-party, or independent. Unlike the present system, every one of those votes will move the dial a little bit to the left or to the right.

So far from nullifying anyone’s vote, the popular vote would make everyone’s vote count.

Silly Objections to the Popular Vote

Of late, I’ve been taking an interest in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. For those who haven’t heard about it, the basic idea is that the US’s system of electing presidents through the Electoral College is archaic and convoluted, and too often doesn’t elect the person who won the most people’s votes.

Since the Electoral College is in the Constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it, and that’s notoriously difficult. However, there’s a workaround: have states allocate their Electoral Votes not to the candidate who won the state’s popular vote, but to the one who won the national popular vote. Yes, it means that if most people in a state vote for candidate A, but candidate B wins the vote nationwide, then that state will allocate its Electoral votes to candidate B. Naturally, it would be crazy for a state to go it alone in this. So this would only kick in once enough states signed up to determine the outcome of the election, i.e., states with 270 Electoral Votes between them.

It sounds weird at first, but it could work. And it’s because it sounds crazy that I’ve started following the issue. But one thing that struck me is just how few good arguments there are against it.

Take, for instance, this letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

As far as presidential elections go, contenders should learn some things from sports. Know the rules. More importantly, play by the rules. They should broaden their support and try to win more states. They know what the rules are. A contender should need to win more than 11 states (the most populous of which total 270 electoral votes), potentially negating the other 78% (39 states).

For starters, presidential candidates and their campaign managers do know the rules, and do play by them; that’s why they only really campaign in a handful of swing states: everyone knows that, say, New Jersey will vote Democratic no matter what, so the Republicans can just write it off and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good (i.e., where advertising is likely to get them some more Electoral Votes). The Democrats, meanwhile, can take New Jersey pretty much for granted, and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good.

Secondly, the author makes a mistake that many opponents of the NPVIC make: that of thinking in terms of states instead of people: states don’t vote; individual voters do. Under a popular vote system, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “how New Jersey voted”, except as a broad trend. The more important question is, how many people in New Jersey voted for each candidate?

Note, too, that the 11 most populous states (also the ones with the most Electoral Votes) are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and New Jersey. The author’s fear lies on the premise of everyone in those 11 states voting the same way. I can’t imagine an election in which everyone in California votes the same way, let alone one where everyone in Texas votes the same way as everyone in California. If a candidate comes along who’s such a uniter that they can get a majority of the vote in those 11 states, then I think that person deserves the presidency.

Furthermore, while those 11 states add up to 270 Electoral Votes, they also have 52% of the population. So what this person is arguing against is the idea of majority rule.

But the biggest mistake this writer makes, in my opinion, is the one I mentioned first: it’s in part because of the Electoral College that presidential candidates only try to win a handful of states and ignore the rest. If he wants them to reach out to, say, Republicans in rural California and New York, or Democrats in Austin and Salt Lake City, then a popular-vote approach is the way to go.