California to Join National Popular Vote Compact

by Tara Ross

Anti–Electoral College forces achieved a significant victory today. The state senate in elector-rich California has voted to join the controversial National Popular Vote movement. Bill advocates in the state senate plan to send the bill to the assembly immediately; they hope that NPV can be re-approved there and forwarded to the governor, perhaps by the end of the day. (The assembly already approved the measure, but needs to re-approve it due to minor senate amendments.) Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill and make California the ninth entity to join NPV.

To date, seven states plus D.C. (for a total of 77 electors) have agreed to NPV’s plan. California’s participation would provide a giant boost, bringing the new total to 132 electors — nearly halfway to the 270 electors needed to essentially eliminate the Electoral College.

NPV strived for the appearance of bipartisanship in California. They worked particularly hard to get Republicans on board, and initially obtained a few Republican co-sponsors for the legislation. Ultimately, however, the senate Republican co-authors had their names removed from the bill and voted “no,” along with one Democrat and every other Republican senator (except one, who abstained). Even in the assembly, Republican enthusiasm for the bill waned over time. In the end, only four Republican assemblymen voted for the measure.

The NPV campaign rests on two assumptions: First, that “only swing states” matter under the Electoral College system; second, that a direct-election system will eliminate this focus and ensure that voters everywhere are considered in presidential campaigns.

The first assumption is questionable, at best, and the second is simply wrong.

An honest assessment of American history shows that no state is permanently “safe” or “swing.” California is often viewed as irreversibly Democratic, but Republican candidates such as George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford might disagree. Each won the state. Indeed, even the George W. Bush campaign spent time in California in 2000, thinking that it might be able to win. History shows that political parties don’t (and can’t!) ignore any state for too long without feeling the ramifications at the polls.

Moreover, despite NPV’s rhetoric, presidential candidates won’t suddenly begin visiting every single precinct in every corner of the country if a direct election system is implemented. Candidates have limited time and resources, and they must be more pragmatic. They will strategize. Since their goal would be “the most” individual votes, they will rationally go where the most individuals are: Urban areas. Rural areas (yes, even in a big state such as California) will suffer.

California legislators wanted to pretend that they’ve helped Republicans and Democrats alike by approving NPV’s radical proposal. Their plan is non-partisan, alright. It hurts voters of every political party, nationwide.

— Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.