Maine’s Legislature is considering a bill to radically change the way we participate in presidential elections. The so-called “National Popular Vote” compact (NPV) would award our electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide. The debate over this bill is lining up as a left versus right issue, with Democrats leaning toward support and Republicans leaning against it. It’s understandable that many get heartburn from the idea of tinkering with the elemental aspects of our voting system, but the disagreement over this particular proposal really shouldn’t be partisan.
One of the main arguments Republican opponents make about the NPV is that densely-populated areas would see their political influence drown out that of smaller, more rural areas, like Maine. This is a noble concern, however, it’s kind of too late. Maine and other sparsely populated areas are already a minor concern in the grand scheme of our presidential elections.
Jacob Posik of The Maine Heritage Policy Center wrote a good piece recently laying out the argument against NPV. In the piece, Posik noted that, under NPV, Maine’s total share of the national vote total would only be 0.55 percent, and therefore politicians wouldn’t bother paying attention to our state. However, Posik failed to note that, under the current Electoral College system, Maine’s four electoral votes make up only 0.74 percent of the 538 total Electoral College votes nationwide. Under both systems, Maine is merely a blip on the screen of the broader electorate.
The fact is, candidates pay attention to states because they’re competitive, not because of the density of their population. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District got attention during the 2016 presidential election because polling showed the Republican could potentially win the district’s one electoral vote. It didn’t matter that one electoral vote represents only 0.18 percent of the total Electoral College; it only mattered that the electoral vote was up for grabs.
This is why the partisan argument against NPV is really off-base. The Electoral College doesn’t grant any notable proportional advantage for Republicans in small, rural states, but it does severely marginalize the votes of Republicans in states that are not competitive.
For instance, a Republican hasn’t won New York’s electoral votes since 1984. However, there are more than 2.6 million registered Republicans in New York. Regardless, those Republican votes have not had any impact on the electoral college tabulations in more than 35 years.
The same is true for Democrats in deeply Republican states. There are nearly 50,000 Democrats in Wyoming whose votes are inconsequential to the electoral tabulation in presidential contests because their state hasn’t supported a Democratic candidate since 1964.
Under the NPV system, though, every one of these votes would be tabulated. A Republican in Manhattan or Los Angeles would have their votes added to the national vote total, and voters behind the partisan curtain of the opposing party would no longer be inconsequential to the overall outcome.
The debate over NPV really comes down to the question of a state’s impact on an election versus an individual voter’s impact. When a Democrat moves to Wyoming, is it fair for them to lose their influence over the next presidential election because of their geographic location? Is a Republican in Maine’s 1st Congressional District OK with their vote being sublimated to the Democratic majority that allocates their electoral vote every four years?
It’s a complicated question. Eliminating state boundaries would forever change the way presidential campaigns are run, and it’s hard to know whether this would be positive or negative. Candidates would likely concentrate on coalitions of interests rather than geography to form their winning constituencies, creating a whole new web of strategic possibilities, which would then translate into a myriad of possible governing strategies for future chief executives.
Surrendering Maine’s autonomy to join the NPV compact is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But the debate over the issue should be on the merits, not on the mischaracterization of the issue as a partisan play for advantage. Republicans and Democrats have much to complain about in our current system, and the goal should be to determine whether or not NPV would fix those problems for the electorate as a whole.