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Opinion

Opinion

States should respect election system

October 9, 2011

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Republicans supposedly revere the Constitution, but in its birthplace, Pennsylvania, they are contemplating a subversion of the Framers’ institutional architecture. Their ploy — partisanship masquerading as altruism about making presidential elections more “democratic” — will weaken resistance to an even worse change being suggested.  

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature may pass, and the Republican governor promises to sign, legislation ending the state’s practice — shared by 47 other states — of allocating all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. Pennsylvania would join Maine and Nebraska in allocating one vote to the winner in each congressional district, with the two remaining votes going to the statewide popular vote winner. The 2012 Republican candidate might lose the statewide vote but carry, say, nine of the 18 congressional districts, cutting Barack Obama’s yield to 11 electoral votes. But if the Republican candidate carries nine of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts, and the statewide vote — Obama’s Pennsylvania poll numbers are poor — Republicans will have cost themselves nine electoral votes, which would be condign punishment.    

Not since 1988 has a Republican carried Pennsylvania, a state described as Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in between. Incongruous political cultures coexist in many states, so the temptation to which Pennsylvania Republicans may succumb could become a national contagion. Many big blue states (e.g., New York, Illinois, California) have many red enclaves: Democrats, particularly minorities and government employees, are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas. And many reliably red states (e.g. Texas, Georgia) have solidly blue congressional districts.

In 1960, when Richard Nixon lost the popular vote to John Kennedy by 0.2 percent and the electoral vote 303-219, he won 227 districts and 26 states, so under Pennsylvania’s plan he would have won the presidency with 279 electoral votes. In 1976, Gerald Ford carried 215 districts and 27 states, Jimmy Carter carried 221 districts and 23 states and Washington, D.C. Under Pennsylvania’s plan (and assuming no “faithless” electors), there would have been a 269-269 electoral vote tie and the House of Representatives would have picked the winner.

Pennsylvania’s plan would encourage third parties to cherry-pick particular districts, periodically producing “winners” with only national pluralities of electoral votes, leaving the House to pick presidents. The existing system handicaps third parties: In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.  

Pennsylvania’s proposal would raise the stakes of gerrymandering. And a swing state such as Colorado would often be neglected: Its nine electoral votes are a pot worth competing for, but under Pennsylvania’s plan, the split might usually be 5-4 or 6-3.  

Winner-take-all allocation of states’ electoral votes enhances presidential legitimacy by magnifying narrow popular vote margins. In 1960, John Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote but 56.4 percent of the electoral vote (303-219). In 2008, Barack Obama won just 52.9 percent of the popular vote but 67.8 percent of the electoral vote (365-173).

Now eight states and the District of Columbia, with 132 electoral votes, are pursuing an even worse idea than Pennsylvania’s. They have agreed to a compact requiring their electoral votes to be cast for the national popular vote winner, even if he loses their popular vote contests. This compact would come into effect when the states agreeing to it have a decisive 270 votes.  

Deep-blue California supports the compact. But if it had existed in 2004, the state’s electoral votes would have gone to George Bush even though 1.2 million more Californians favored John Kerry.  

Supporters of the compact say they favor direct popular election of presidents. But that exists — within each state. The Framers, not being simple, did not subordinate all values to simple majority rule. The electoral vote system shapes the character of presidential majorities, making it unlikely they will be geographically or ideologically narrow. The Framers wanted rule by certain kinds of majorities — ones suited to moderate, consensual governance of a heterogeneous, continental nation with myriad regional and other diversities.

Such majorities do not materialize spontaneously. They are built by a two-party system’s candidates who are compelled to cater to entire states and to create coalitions of states. Today’s electoral vote system provides incentives for parties to alter the attributes that make them uncompetitive in important states. It shapes the nation’s regime and hence the national character. The Electoral College today functions differently than the Founders envisioned — they did not anticipate political parties — but it does buttress the values encouraged by the federalism the Framers favored, which Pennsylvanians, and others, should respect.      

George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Comments

Liberty_One 3 years ago

No, the system sucks. A minority of swing states call the shots. Simply look at where all the campaigning was done. Splitting up the whole country by districts makes a lot more sense and would likely result in much higher turnout. Kansas, for example, hasn't gone democratic in a while, and that likely discourages a lot of voters come election time. However, democrats have won individual district seats quite frequently.

Also, as mentioned, this would greatly help third parties, something I'm all in favor of.

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mvymvy 3 years ago

Dividing a state's electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts.

The district approach would not provide incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates' attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all laws(whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts (the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state's 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 "battleground" districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, 2/3rds of the states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, 88% of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

Awarding electoral votes by congressional district could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.

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mvymvy 3 years ago

You want Congress - presently at 11% approval rating among U.S. voters - left to choose the President? Do you think that would be accepted by the country or the world as representative of American voters?

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mvymvy 3 years ago

If left to the established dominant party in Congress to decide, most likely the candidate LEAST wanted by third party voters would become President. How would having the least wanted candidate become President be a good thing for supporters of third party candidates for 4 or 8 years?

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

Gandalf, it's "electoral" college, which your Civics teacher tried to teach you many years back when Civics was taught, and taught accurately, in public schools.

Actually, though, Gandalf's comment presages what mine was going to be after I had read Will's excellent column: What Pennsylvania is contemplating is a first step on the slippery slope toward abolishing the Electoral College, which in this country is a cornerstone of federalism and must never be abolished. We were not founded as a democracy. We were founded as a democratic republic, and there's a big difference between the two. That's another fact that used to be taught in Civics but has virtually disappeared from public education tutelage today.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

You could have just said you just don't want to change it because that's the way it's always been, but for no particular reason otherwise.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

But I didn't. Sorry to disappoint you.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

No, you chose to say the same thing in a needlessly verbose manner.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

No I didn't, Bozo. Our country was not founded as a democracy. Live with it.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

You just said the same thing-- again.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

BTW, Thomas Jefferson maintained that if future generations didn't like what the founding fathers had created, they should emphatically NOT live with it.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

I'm not surprised to hear you say that you do not support the Constitution of the United States.

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Peacemaker452 3 years ago

Cato, Why did the republic not fail when we went to a popular vote for senators? That was certainly more important to the balance of federalism than the college. And Bozo's comment was spot on, if we don't like it we should change it.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

Do you, like Bozo, want to destroy all vestiges of federalism in this country? You describe our system of government as a republic, which is correct, but if you wish us to stay a republic instead of becoming a democracy you cannot support the abolition of the electoral college.

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Peacemaker452 3 years ago

Cato, First, you need to provide your definition of federalism. Some would describe it as power concentrated in the federal government; some would apply a more balanced split of power. Next, please provide some logical discussion on the dependency that you see between the college and federalism.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

I view it as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay did in the Federalist Papers. You might try reading that sometime.

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Peacemaker452 3 years ago

Cato, Feel free to be snippy about an honest question.

FYI-I have read the federalist and the anti-federalist papers.

Don’t much care for Hamilton’s views. Funny thing is, Madison left the Hamilton camp and joined Jefferson’s.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

No, you're left. And far left at that.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

Being honorable doesn't equate with posting "electorial college," as you did. That's undoubtedly how you would have pronounced it had you said it.

I consider that dishonorable.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

Any American who is possessed of integrity and is guided by a high sense of honor and duty to his country should know that we don't have an "electorial"college.

At least that's the way it used to be.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

No, Gandalf, that's why I specifically pointed out that you would have pronounced it the same way. That's also proven by your again having said "electorial college" in your later post of October 9, 2011, at 2:50 p.m. below.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

And the founders of our Republic experience yet one more of their descendants spitting in their faces.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

"Not possible?" The Framers specifically rejected the direct election of the president by majority vote. It's a cornerstone of the concept of Federalism, which you obviously don't understand.

I sincerely hope that you didn't receive your public education in the Lawrence Schools system. That would sadden me.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

No, in your mind it's the damn Founders who screwed it all up.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

I'm talking about the essential core practice of how we elect our president, which has been lost on you since your first vapid post.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

Just as in your mind the concept of Federalism has. You have no respect for the great minds who founded our Republic. Once more, this country was not founded as a democracy. The fact that it was founded as a democratic republic is the major reason that it has survived. If you want to destroy America by turning it into an Athenian democracy, you have no understanding of our history nor love for your country.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

"A straight popular vote would not change the democratic republic status it would only insure the president is one selected by the people."

As I've said previously, you don't have a clue.

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mvymvy 3 years ago

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters.

States have the responsibility and power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election.

Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

The Republic is not in any danger from National Popular Vote. It has nothing to do with direct democracy.

Under National Popular Vote, citizens would not rule directly but, instead, continue to elect the President by a majority of Electoral College votes, to represent them and conduct the business of government in the periods between elections.

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jafs 3 years ago

That's actually an interesting idea.

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jhawkinsf 3 years ago

The electoral college is a compromise of sorts. It gives smaller, less populace states slightly more political clout than they might have otherwise. Similar to each state have two senators, regardless of population. And it was compromise that began in the beginning, to get the smaller states to join the union without fear that the bigger states would overwhelm them.
Eliminating the electoral college would guarantee that no presidential candidate would step foot in the flyover states, our state included. They would concentrate all their efforts in the large cities and states. Any president should represent the concerns of both rural and urban interests. Eliminating the electoral college would eliminate the president's need to be concerned for both.

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jhawkinsf 3 years ago

Ignore Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota and North Dakota and Wyoming and Oklahoma and Idaho and, and, and. I was watching an interview with Ca. Senator Diane Feinstein. She said California's population was greater than that of 17 states combined and the District of Columbia.
I'm not sure it's in the best interests of the country for any candidate to cater to the interests of California to the exclusion of those others. Having that slight advantage within the electoral college might prompt candidates to campaign in Iowa, even after their primary is over.

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verity 3 years ago

I'm pretty sure they already ignore Kansas.

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mvymvy 3 years ago

Under the current system, the 11 most populous states contain 56% of the population of the United States, and a candidate could win the Presidency by winning a mere 51% of the vote in just these 11 biggest states -- that is, a mere 26% of the nation's votes.

But the political reality is that the 11 largest states rarely agree on any political question. In terms of recent presidential elections, the 11 largest states include five "red states (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia) and six "blue" states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey). The fact is that the big states are just about as closely divided as the rest of the country. For example, among the four largest states, the two largest Republican states (Texas and Florida) generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Bush, while the two largest Democratic states generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Kerry.

Moreover, the notion that any candidate could win 100% of the vote in one group of states and 0% in another group of states is far-fetched. Indeed, among the 11 most populous states in 2004, the highest levels of popular support , hardly overwhelming, were found in the following seven non-battleground states: Texas (62% Republican), New York (59% Democratic), Georgia (58% Republican), North Carolina (56% Republican), Illinois (55% Democratic), California (55% Democratic), and * New Jersey (53% Democratic).

In addition, the margins generated by the nation's largest states are hardly overwhelming in relation to the 122,000,000 votes cast nationally. Among the 11 most populous states, the highest margins were the following seven non-battleground states: Texas -- 1,691,267 Republican New York -- 1,192,436 Democratic Georgia -- 544,634 Republican North Carolina -- 426,778 Republican Illinois -- 513,342 Democratic California -- 1,023,560 Democratic * New Jersey -- 211,826 Democratic

To put these numbers in perspective, Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004 -- larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes). Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

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mvymvy 3 years ago

The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives already agree that, only 7-14 states and their voters will matter under the current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states. Kansas will be ignored, as usual. Candidates will not care about at least 72% of the voters-- voters in 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and in 16 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. In 2008, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. More than 85 million voters have been just spectators to the general election.

Now, policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states - that include Kansas and 9 of the original 13 states - are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing, too.

Charlie Cook reported in 2004: “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling 18 battleground states.”

Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009 said: “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

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Satirical 3 years ago

Democratic-Republics are good. Pure democracies are bad. Federalism and a Federal Government is good. A National Government is bad.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

Having the president elected by the direct vote would have absolutely no effect on whether this country is a republic or not.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

The single largest effect of the electoral college is that it essentially requires candidates to concentrate only on swing states-- and Kansas is not a swing state.

The second largest effect is that it multiplies the power of voters in small states, and aside from bald assertions, I've never seen any good explanation of why that is a good thing-- it's certainly not fair nor in keeping with a small-d democratic spirit.

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jafs 3 years ago

I think the idea is to allow states to have more of an equal share in elections, rather than small ones being insignificant.

The founders must have not wanted for a simple national majority to make decisions, and thus make small states irrelevant - they must have wanted for states to have a more equal voice.

That's my best guess, anyway.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

Why should the vote of a voter in NYC or Los Angeles count for less than that of a voter in Montana or Vermont? And it's not just in presidential elections-- it's even more pronounced in Senate elections, and therefore every vote and action the Senate takes.

"they must have wanted for states to have a more equal voice."

But the real effect was to give them more than an equal voice.

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jafs 3 years ago

How is that?

If we did away with the electoral college, then voters from NY exercise much more of an effect on elections than voters from small states.

By including a mechanism that corrects that a bit, the states should have more equal voices.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

"If we did away with the electoral college, then voters from NY exercise much more of an effect on elections than voters from small states."

That doesn't make any sense. A voter in NY would have exactly the same number of votes as someone in Kansas-- one.

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jafs 3 years ago

Yes, I said it wrong.

NY state would have more of an influence, due to the numbers of voters there, than a small state.

Check out mvymvy's idea - instead of "winner take all" electoral votes, they're split proportional to the actual voters in the state.

So the electoral college is kept, but tweaked so that those of us in KS who vote D have our votes count, not simply ignored.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

I still don't see why small states need to have their influence exaggerated, either in the electoral college or in the Senate.

When I vote for president, I vote for the one who will do the best by the country, not by Kansas.

And when I vote for a representative, whether Senator or House Rep, I'm primarily interested in what they'll do for the country as a whole, and not what sort of pork they're going to bring back to their district at everyone else's expense.

And I don't see why the 3 million residents of Kansas should have the same number of senators as the 30 million residents of California. Why should the voters of Kansas have ten times the representation as the voters of California (per capita?)

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jafs 3 years ago

Well, I think that the founders wanted states to have a more equal voice than they'd have if we went simply by popular vote, and majority of the national population.

It's why we're not a pure democracy, which would function as you like.

I like mvymvy's idea a lot - it actually improves the representation of those not in the majority in individual states, while maintaining the more equal state representation.

As a result, the outcomes would be more reflective of all of the voters, not just the ones in a majority, but small states wouldn't be irrelevant as well. I generally like these sorts of "integrative solutions".

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mvymvy 3 years ago

Now political clout comes from being a battleground state.

Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.

Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Idaho – 77%, Maine -- 77%, Montana – 72%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, South Dakota – 71%, Utah - 70%, Vermont -- 75%, West Virginia – 81%, and Wyoming – 69%.

Nine state legislative chambers in the lowest population states have passed the National Popular Vote bill. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont.

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verity 3 years ago

There might have been a good reason for the electoral college when it was first established, but it is now archaic and unfair. It is the larger states which decide the election---you have to win a lot of small states to make up for one large one. Everybody's vote for President of the United States should count---and since I live in Kansas, mine never does.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

"There might have been a good reason for the electoral college when it was first established, but it is now archaic and unfair."

The real point of the electoral college was to essentially bribe the smaller, more agricultural states (especially those with slaves) to join the union.

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verity 3 years ago

Just one of the many compromises to form "a more perfect union."

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Liberty275 3 years ago

You just keep voting for the wrong candidates.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

"And why is this a bad thing?"

Because it decreases the power of voters in large states simply because they live in large states.

" a person would run for president up and down the east coast and the west and pop into Texas and a couple of Great Lakes states and be done with it. "

That's pretty much how it is already, but they concentrate on swing states.

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boltzmann 3 years ago

Why should the votes of people in smaller states count more than those in large states for president? The senate is already skewed toward small states anyway, so why should we add to that to make their votes count more than others. Are they more important?

Operationally, for KS it doesn't matter - we will get ignored in either system. With the electoral college we get ignored because we are more or less a lock for the Republicans and with the popular vote we would get ignored because only 2 million people live here.

I am in favor of the National Popular Vote bill, because it is designed not to take effect the states that have approved it reach 270 electoral votes, which would be equivalent to a national popular vote. At least I would have some feeling that my vote would count here in KS as opposed to being wasted, as usual. I'm sure there are conservatives in Vermont who feel the same way - and rightfully so.

I do not agree with the the Pennsylvania bill because it is just a cynical ploy to favor one party over another.

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mvymvy 3 years ago

In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state's electoral votes.

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Liberty275 3 years ago

This entire thing is dumb. The constitution plainly lays down the law concerning elections, allowing the states to decide how their electors are chosen. We, being of Kansas in general, the home of the cornfield, have no business telling another state how to choose their electors.

How would you guys like Missouri coming over and telling us how our votes are counted?

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beatrice 3 years ago

Let Kevin Costner decide.

My, that was a bad movie.

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beatrice 3 years ago

Oh, and I agree with Liberty275 here. Let the states decide what they want to do with their votes -- no matter how much I would have loved to have seen a popular vote win the day in 2000.

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Richard Heckler 3 years ago

States should eliminate computerized voting machines to protect the system from RINO hackers and frauds.

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cato_the_elder 3 years ago

I don't know about inconvenience, but I do recognize ignorance.

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