The New Jersey legislature passed a bill last week that would essentially destroy the Electoral College, giving the presidency to the candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. A similar bill has been introduced in Albany, but it’s looking like a legislative long-shot—at least for now.
So far the National Popular Vote plan has been approved in Maryland and awaits the signature of the governors of California, Hawaii and Illinois. The Garden State has approved a plan that would bind the state’s votes in the Electoral College to the candidate who wins the national popular vote for president but the bill is also awaiting the signature of Gov. Jon Corzine. The law would only take effect once enough states to comprise a majority of electoral delegates, 270, pass a similar law.
“Electing our President using the national popular vote makes sense,” said Bob Edgar, president of the good-government group Common Cause, which has been the chief supporter of the National Popular Vote movement. “It would ensure that every person’s vote counted equally and that our leaders would be accountable to the nation as a whole, not just voters in a handful of swing states.”
That means New York would matter, should the plan be approved in enough statehouses. The overwhelming Democratic advantage in New York State makes it almost impossible for any Republican, even a local boy like Rudy Giuliani, to consider a victory here. The last Republican to win New York was Ronald Reagan in 1984 as part of his national landslide. Since then Republicans continually refused to waste time and money fighting Democrats in the Empire State, acceding New York and its electoral votes to the Democratic nominee. In 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush by more than 1.3 million votes in New York, a strong Democratic romp rendered meaningless by the larger process.
But what if every vote was in play, and Bush had to spend time in 2004 campaigning upstate to bring out more Republicans? What if Kerry had to push for higher turnouts in the heavily Democratic five boroughs to offset Bush’s northern gains? What if New York mattered? Bronx Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is one of a handful of sponsors of New York’s version of the National Popular Vote act, and the only sponsor from the five boroughs. He noted that it would require an overhaul of the Constitution to officially eliminate the Electoral College. This plan, said Dinowitz, would avoid the considerable hassle of a constitutional change.
But it would also make New York, and every other state in the Union, no different than Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, the three “swing states” that see the most campaign action each presidential year as a result of the Electoral College. Win two of these three states and you’re likely to be the next president, since party advantages in the remaining 47 states make them uncompetitive. Dinowitz said he is tired of the voters in larger states like New York, California and Texas being taken for granted.
“We’d be giving the candidates an incentive to campaign outside of the swing states,” said Dinowitz. “If this was the law, they would go all over the place. They’d have to campaign all over the country.” Whether the bill would pass is anyone’s guess. Albany sources indicated that little thought has been given to the proposal’s merits due to numerous other legislative concerns, and even Dinowitz admitted that he did not push very hard last year to bring more sponsors on board. “This is going to take a while,” said Dinowitz, adding that getting enough states to approve the bill will be difficult even before the 2012 elections, and certainly not sooner.
The law, had it been in effect in the past, would have changed the course of history. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore defeated Bush in the popular vote by a little more than 500,000 votes, yet Bush won enough states, including a highly controversial victory in Florida, to ensure his victory in the Electoral College. The result, one of the four times the popular vote winner lost the presidency, did not sit well with Dinowitz, though he admits that he would have been just as upset had a Republican candidate lost the presidency despite winning the popular vote. What’s right is right, he said.
“Whoever heard of a democracy where the person who comes in second wins?” asked Dinowitz. “It’s crazy.”