Unpopular Votes

Mar 18, 2011

For the last two months, Michigan has been consumed with debate over Governor Snyder’s proposed new budget --  and with a number of his other deal-changing priorities as well, such as the just passed tough new Emergency Financial Manager law.

But there are other issues, and a lobbyist for one showed up in Lansing yesterday to urge the legislature to vote to change the way we elect presidents. Tom Golisano, a millionaire businessman and philanthropist, is the spokesperson for a group called National Popular Vote, which is beginning to have some success.

They want to change the laws to make sure that the candidate who gets the most popular votes for president nationwide gets elected, and they think they’ve found a way to do this without amending the constitution.

Here’s how that would work. First of all, chances are that you at least vaguely remember that while we act as if presidents are elected by a nationwide vote of the people, this only happens indirectly.  That’s because of something called the electoral college. If you remember your twelfth grade civics class -- or the two thousand election between George Bush and Al Gore -- you know that presidential elections are really like a giant board game.

States have a certain number of electoral votes based roughly on their population. Most states have a winner-take-all rule by which whoever wins that state gets all its electoral votes. The name of the game is to win enough states to add up to two hundred and seventy.

Most of the time, whomever gets more popular votes wins the electoral votes. But that wasn’t the case eleven years ago. Half a million more people nationwide voted for Gore, but Bush won the electoral vote. Four years later, Bush won the popular vote easily, but would have lost the election if John Kerry had won Ohio.

The group called National Popular Vote wants to change that by getting states to pass laws that would require their electors to vote for whomever wins the national popular vote. This change would only take effect when National Popular Vote is adopted by states with enough electoral votes to elect a winner.

The group says that polls show that most people think this would be a good idea, and I don’t doubt those polls are right.

However, I don’t think it is necessarily a good idea, for a number of reasons. The winner of the popular vote does win the electoral vote almost all the time. Some, in fact, think that Al Gore should have won the electoral vote, if Florida had counted its votes properly. In most cases, the electoral vote magnifies the popular result. And if we changed the system to mean only popular votes counted, campaigning would change.

Sparsely populated states like Nevada would never see a presidential nominee in the flesh. Actually, I doubt we’d see much of them in Michigan, either. The candidates would probably just spend all their time on TV, or in heavily populated areas.

The United States is supposed to be a federal system, where the individual states have a distinct role to play. The current system isn’t really broken. We might want to be careful before trying to radically fix it.