Politics & Policy

National Popular Vote Movement Tries to Win Over Skeptical Conservatives

Voters at a polling place in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012 (Matt Sullivan/Reuters)
As the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact inches closer to changing how we elect the president, supporters still must sway right-leaning voters to their cause.

Last week, Oregon’s Democratic governor, Kate Brown, committed her state to an interstate compact designed to ensure that the national popular vote determines presidential elections. By signing the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), Brown is aligning herself squarely with fellow Democrats who believe that a plurality of voters nationwide should elect the president.

Their efforts, while long predating President Trump’s election, gained new urgency in its wake. The Electoral College, many Democrats claimed, subverted the will of the electorate in 2016. After all, 3.5 million more votes were cast for Hillary Clinton than for Trump, yet she was forced to retire to Chappaqua while he moved into the White House.

Trump’s victory, and George W. Bush’s similar triumph over Al Gore in 2000, provide ample pretext for Democrats to redouble their efforts to transition to a national popular vote. But if they are to have any success, they will have to win over conservatives wary of eliminating the Electoral College, either out of political self-interest or principle. Proponents of the NPVIC believe they are uniquely well-suited to meet this challenge because unlike, say, the constitutional amendment proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, it preserves the College.

“This is the constitutionally conservative way to ensure that every voter in every state is politically relevant in every presidential election while preserving the Electoral College,” the movement’s largest benefactor, John Koza, said in a statement earlier this month after the Oregon House signed on to the NPVIC. The compact is designed to go into effect once states representing more than 270 electoral votes have signed on, and things are moving quickly: Oregon is the third state to join this year, bringing the total committed number of electoral votes to 196.

While the NPVIC’s advocates will certainly tailor their message to conservatives when the need arises, the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections (IRPE), the movement’s nonprofit educational arm, stresses in all of its communications that the issue is non-partisan; it’s about fairness, they claim.

“We don’t get too bogged down on partisan frames at the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections. Those winds have changed three times in the last decade,” IRPE chairman Patrick Rosensteil tells National Review. “Instead, we focus on educating interested parties on the shortcomings of the current system and the merits of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and/or other potential reforms.”

His argument is straightforward: Voters in Iowa, regardless of political affiliation, should not have more political power than their counterparts in New York or California. While they may agree in principle, self-interested Republicans’ usual response is fear that under the NPVIC, mostly Democratic voters in metropolitan areas will replace battleground-state voters as the most politically influential group in presidential elections. Presidential campaigns will inevitably restrict their appeals, and appearances, to highly populous regions, and this will pervert public policy in much the same way that sops to Iowans, such as ethanol subsidies, currently do.

Not so, claim the compact’s proponents, who predict that when every vote counts in every election, presidential candidates will campaign everywhere that voters live. While it is impossible to say with any certainty whether this claim would be born out if the compact were passed, the obvious objection is that of limited resources. At present, presidential campaigns have the ability to traverse battleground states because there are, more or less, only twelve such states. Will they spend precious time and resources traveling to North Dakota to appeal to its roughly 700,000 residents when they could flatter more than 2 million potential voters by spending the afternoon in Brooklyn instead?

Advocates of the Compact argue that, since only roughly 15 percent of Americans live in the 50 largest cities, candidates will travel to wherever the other 82 percent live. But the vast majority of that 82 percent live in the suburbs of those major cities and, as a result, can be reached through advertising in the same major media markets as city residents. In 2018, 46 million Americans lived in rural counties while 147 million lived in suburbs or small metros — and that number is only going to continue increasing in the coming years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Asked about the claim that the national popular vote would lead to a geographically diverse campaign strategy, Republican strategist Luke Thompson suggests that campaigns would concentrate on the suburbs of major cities, where the most persuadable voters reside. “In a national popular vote, you’ll make an effort to mobilize your base voters EVERYWHERE, true. But you’re still going to concentrate your campaign firepower — television spending and candidate appearances — where the most persuadable voters are,” Thompson says. “That means . . . concentrating on the largest clusters of high- and mid-propensity persuadable voters. Where are those voters? The suburbs of major American cities — New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago. . . .”

While the precise consequences of the NPVIC’s implementation remain unknowable, its proponents must deal with the perception problem created by its main funding sources as they try to recruit more state legislatures to the cause. The movement is primarily funded by two wealthy donors: Koza, who serves as the group’s chairman and continues to donate each year; and Tom Golisano, a pro-life political independent who made a one-time $10 million donation. While the effort primarily relies on a group of wealthy individuals unknown to the public, its institutional donor base comprises only liberal groups, according to an investigation by The Daily Signal and the Capital Research Center.

In addition to the perception that its donors are exclusively liberal, the movement now has to contend with the fact that, among prominent national political figures, only Democrats are calling for a national popular vote. In addressing this concern, supporters of the compact will inevitably return to the fact that the Electoral College would still exist under the compact, whose member states can abandon it anytime they see fit. (This is, of course, another potential vulnerability: Capricious state legislatures may leave the compact after watching their state’s electors bring the opposing party to power one too many times.) Saul Anuzis, spokesman for the IRPE, sees this as a strength. Unlike a constitutional amendment, the compact can be dissolved if it has, in Anuzis’s words, “unintended consequences.”

But that, of course, is not an argument for joining the NPVIC; it’s just an argument against dissolving the Electoral College entirely.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified John Koza as a former Democratic state legislator. He never served as a state legislator.

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