GOP efforts to rig the Electoral College in favour of GOP presidential candidates may be close to dead, but a group of Republicans are hard at work at another plot to blow up the system: switch to the popular vote.Although more closely associated with progressive circles in recent years, the idea has a number of conservative activists behind it as well. And there are signs it’s gaining momentum.
“I think there’s a growing consensus that the winner-take-all system we’re currently under is a problem, that it’s not representative, that only a small number of states benefit, and that it needs to be changed,” Saul Anuzis, a Republican national committeeman from Michigan who advocates on behalf of the nonpartisan National Popular Vote group, told TPM.
The plan, as espoused by groups like NPV, is to lobby states to pass binding legislation pledging their entire slate of electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide. The bills would only take effect once enough states join in to provide a guaranteed majority in the Electoral College — 270 votes — in order to prevent individual legislatures from trying to game the system unilaterally.
On the surface, there’s nothing particularly partisan about the proposal (several recent analyses concluded Republicans are actually more likely to benefit in the short term.) But the last race to feature a split between the popular and electoral vote was George W. Bush’s 2000 victory and the memory of that contest still hovers over the debate for many Republicans.
“I argue we would have run the 2000 race differently, so it’s not fair to judge based on past elections,” Anuzis said.
Not coincidentally, the places that have actually passed a national popular vote agreement so far are all solid blue — California, Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia — even though some states had Republican support behind their bill. RNC members also gave Anuzis some flack for his popular vote advocacy when he ran unsuccessfully for RNC chair in 2011.
Anuzis, for his part, is trying his best to tailor his arguments to their concerns. He pitches the Electoral College as a prime driver of big government, encouraging politicians to lavish goodies to win a narrow set of demographics in just a handful of battlegrounds.
“People realise we have ethanol because of Iowa, we have Medicare Part D because of Florida, and people realise many of the issues they care about aren’t being discussed because they’re not a swing state,” he said.
Ray Haynes, who describes his title at NPV as “Champion of National Popular Vote,” is another conservative whose activism has run up against movement politics. Haynes used to chair the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that promotes conservative state legislation around the country. But after he left, ALEC ended up leading the charge against popular vote bills Haynes lobbied for in states like Arkansas and Maryland, claiming it was “imperative the work of our forefathers on this issue be respected and protected.”
“I’ve worked on my ALEC friends, but this is a big change,” Hayne said. “Conservatives tend to come to big changes a little bit slower.”
That said, there is polling evidence that GOP voters are become more interested in a national popular vote as 2000 fades into the distance and Democrats expand their reach into more swing states. A Gallup poll this month found 63 per cent of respondents supported replacing the Electoral College with a national vote. But the big news was that 61 per cent of Republicans now favour the change, a huge shift in support since 2000, when only 41 per cent said they were were pro-popular vote. Even in 2011, only a slight majority of GOPers wanted to ditch the current system.
This might have something to do with the previous race. A week before the 2012 election, Republicans were a lot more worried that Mitt Romney might win the popular vote and lose the election than Democrats were about President Obama thanks to the latter’s relative strength in Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa.
Meanwhile, the conservative movement’s electoral reformers may not have the biggest megaphone in the party, but it is getting louder. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) came out for a national popular vote shortly after the election, complaining it put too much attention on swing states. (So did Donald Trump, for what it’s worth.)
At this point, all it would take is one Democrat winning an election without the popular vote to spark a grassroots revolution. But by then the Democrats might have decided such talk is heresy that dishonors the memory of George Washington and, well, you can see why we still have the Electoral College today.
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