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2014-04-17

Fixing the Electoral College: New York Joins Pact to Elect President by Popular Vote

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Hendrik Hertzberg, staff writer at The New Yorker who has been writing in support of the national popular vote since 2006. He serves on the board of the electoral reform organization FairVote.

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New York has become the latest state to join an agreement that would transform the U.S. presidential election. Under the compact for a National Popular Vote, states across the country have pledged to award their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote. If enough states sign on, it would guarantee the presidency goes to the candidate with the most votes nationwide. This would prevent scenarios like what happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but still lost the election to George W. Bush. The compact will kick in only when enough states have signed on to reach a threshold of 270 electoral votes. By adding its 29 electoral votes, New York joins those already pledged by nine other states and Washington, D.C. We are joined by New Yorker staff writer Hendrik Hertzberg, an advocate of the national popular vote and a board member of the electoral reform organization FairVote.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: New York has become the latest state to join an agreement that would transform the way we elect the president of the United States. Under the compact for a national popular vote, states across the country have pledged to award their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. If enough states sign on, it would guarantee the presidency goes to the candidate who wins the most votes across the country. It would prevent scenarios like what happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but still lost the election to George W. Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: The compact will kick in only when enough states have signed on to reach a threshold of 270 electoral votes. This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo brought the campaign a step closer, adding New York’s 29 electoral votes to those already pledged by nine other states, including California, Illinois, Massachusetts and by Washington, D.C. In a statement, Governor Cuomo said, quote, "By aligning the Electoral College with the voice of the nation’s voters, we are ensuring the equality of votes and encouraging candidates to appeal to voters in all states, instead of disproportionately focusing on early contests and swing [states]." New York State Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican, sponsored the bill.

STATE SEN. JOSEPH GRIFFO: Potential presidential candidates concentrate more than two-thirds of their advertising budget and two-thirds of their campaign stops in just five states. Almost 100 percent of their message is seen in approximately 16 battleground states. New York has 19.5 million people, but we’re routinely ignored by campaigns. I want to empower people. I want to make New York state relevant in a national campaign again. I want democracy that creates excitement in people, not apathy. Joining the National Popular Vote compact creates that opportunity. It leverages the combined power of the states in a compact to say, "No longer can you take us for granted. No longer can you effectively disenfranchise million of Americans by ignoring us. No longer can you assume that you have our vote."

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the campaign for a national popular vote, we’re joined now by Hendrik Hertzberg, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He has been writing in support of the national popular vote since 2006, serves on the board of the electoral reform organization FairVote.

Rick, welcome to Democracy Now!Talk about the significance of New York joining on, but also what the national popular vote is.

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Well, it’s an important step psychologically, because now the threshold, instead of being 50 percent of the way to the threshold, we’re 61 percent of the way. So every little bit—every little bit helps. And, of course, New York is the media capital. Things don’t really happen in the brain of the media until they happen in New York. So even though California, New Jersey, state of Washington—even though all these other states have already signed on, it’s only now starting to raise to the level of some sort of public attention. And most people don’t even know this is going on, and that includes people who are extremely well informed—don’t even—have never even heard of this, don’t realize that we’re halfway—more than halfway to solving one of the central problems of our Constitution, which is the—this Electoral College setup. And the problem with the setup is not the Electoral College itself. The problem is the winner-take-all by state. That’s what creates all the anomalies.

And what the National Popular Vote plan does is, by a whole bunch of states getting together to award their electors to whoever wins in all 50 states, as soon as that happens, well, then it doesn’t matter what state you live in: Your vote is just as much equal to go after, to campaign for. It means that, for instance, in New York, where it’s pointless to do—to do doorbell ringing, to have a coffee collection, invite your neighbors in—what difference does it make? Everybody knows which way New York is going. But if every vote, if a vote in New York is worth the same as a vote in Ohio or Pennsylvania, you get a—that really is transformational. Even more than preventing a wrong winner is that you get grassroots politics happening in every corner of the country. And if you’re worried about political corruption, if you’re worried about campaign finance, for example, what this would do is, all those billions raised for campaigns, instead of being funneled into a handful of states, they would have to be spread out across the whole country, so their relative impact would be much less. This is an extraordinary reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what allows a group of states to be able to come together and reach a compact like this? Wouldn’t a constitutional amendment be needed for this? Explain the legality of it.

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Well, this is based on two things in the Constitution. One is what you just mentioned, interstate compacts. There are hundreds of them. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, maybe not the best example lately, but that is an example of an interstate compact. It’s in the Constitution. The other part is that the only thing in the Constitution about electing the president is basically a one-liner that says each state shall appoint a number of electors in such manner as the Legislature thereof may determine. That’s all it says. Everything else is left to—is left to the states to figure out. And the winner-take-all notion, that’s a—that’s something that came in 20, 30 years after the Constitution was written. And it’s because a party that controls the state Legislature isn’t going to say, if given the choice between keeping all those electors for themselves or giving, you know, some portion of them to the opposition, of course they’re going to do it this way.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democratic New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, who is among those who oppose joining the compact for a national popular vote.

STATE SEN. MICHAEL GIANARIS: The current system allots Electoral College votes based on a state’s population, whereas a system such as the National Popular Vote will do so based on voter turnout in a presidential election, which means states that have a high number of unregistered residents would not be counted as much, or states that have low voter turnout would not be counted as much as they are under the current system. There’s also a myriad of other issues related to those that have wealth being able to saturate a big city media market to affect the outcome more than they currently do, which is already too much, as well as the possibility for some states that are unhappy with the results, potentially between Election Day and the Electoral College vote, changing their state laws to pull back out of a compact like this, which would throw the whole system into chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic New York State Senator Michael Gianaris. Now, interesting, he’s Democrat, and the person we played for the national popular vote was a Republican. But can you answer his points?

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: He’s wrong on every single one of them. You cannot withdraw from the state—interstate compact for 90 days before an election. That’s part of the deal. That’s part of the contract that you make.

The notion that—as far as turnout is concerned, right now there’s a sort of a five-to-10-point difference in the turnout between battleground states and spectator states. So when you have a nationwide vote, you’re going to see—yes, you’re going to see turnout increase, but don’t say it like it’s a bad thing.

He mentions that the Electoral College is based on—is not based on how many people vote; it’s based on population. And that’s one of—that’s sort of the original sin of the Electoral College, because the reason it’s based on population is so that the three-fifths of the slaves could be counted to give the slave owners more representation. It imports—the Electoral College mechanism imports that right—which is in the Senate and the House, right into this choice of the presidency. Now, that part of it’s gone now, but that is the original sin.

And of course it makes more sense for the president to be chosen by voters, one-by-one voters, rather than by states with a fixed number of votes. Even if only three people vote in a state and it’s got 10 electoral votes, they’ll still go to that candidate. All the National Popular Vote plan does, really, is elect the president the way we elect a dog catcher or a governor or a senator or representative. It’s not that complicated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But my question is, given the fact that you would only need the states who equal a number of 270 votes to join the compact, and they would therefore then be decisive in terms of who would get elected if the—who wins the popular vote, but isn’t it possible just as well for the compact to be broken years down the line? In other words, for new legislatures to come in and decide to leave?

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Sure, that would be possible, yeah. And actually, that’s one of the advantages to this maybe over a constitutional amendment. We can try it. We can try it, see if—try electing a president democratically, see if we like it. If we like it, we can keep it. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to keep it. That’s actually a plus, not a minus.

AMY GOODMAN: So, so far, now—

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: And I might add, Juan, that it’s not as if the states that are compacting are then going to decide who’s president. No, the only thing that will decide who’s president is the voters in all the states that are compacting and that are not compacting. It won’t make any difference whether you live in one of them or not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now signed on: New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, Rhode Island and Washington.

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens next?

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Well, right now there’s a focus on Connecticut, where the bill is being considered. It’s kind of a one-by-one thing, state to state. Now, people may have noticed that the states that you mentioned are all blue states. And, of course, because of what happened in 2000, Republicans tend to have a—you know, they kind of—they kind of have a—react to this and think—or, suspiciously, they think maybe this is Al Gore’s revenge. But, in fact, there are plenty of Republicans who back this. If you believe in democracy, if you believe that the way to have an election is count the votes, see who wins, then it really doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Yes, there are these inbred prejudices. Republicans are—maybe they’re more resistant to change. Maybe they think this is somehow an end run around the Constitution, which it is not, which it definitely is not. They have a—they have more skepticism to overcome. But this isn’t like, you know, taxing the rich, where that’s a matter of principle. It’s a matter of principle the other way: If you’re for democracy, you really ought to be for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Hendrik Hertzberg is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s been writing in support of the national popular vote since 2006. I think you said in your last piece you had written 51 pieces on this.

HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Fifty-two as of this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: He serves on the board of the electoral reform organization FairVote. When we come back, we’re going to England and to Norway to talk about drones and who’s running the U.S. drone operation. Stay with us.

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