Why Are Conservatives Supporting the National Popular Vote?

Attracting some of the hardest of hardcore politicos to a cold and rainy pavilion in South Saint Paul, the Republican Liberty Caucus hosted a town hall style forum Wednesday evening. The subject was a state-by-state initiative to establish a National Popular Vote for the office of President of the United States.

This is a controversial issue among conservatives and libertarians which I have come down on the unpopular side of. I haven’t wholly endorsed NPV. I have urged Tea Partiers to take an objective look at what it could do for Minnesota. However, before we can seriously analyze the idea, we have to understand what it is – and what it is not. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that it is an attack upon our Founding Fathers, our Constitution, the Republic, and Mother’s apple pie.

Articulating that position at Wednesday’s forum was state Representative Glenn Gruenhagen. I took away three themes from his remarks. The first was that NPV is an attempt to undermine the Electoral College and transform the American republic into a pure democracy. The second, made in answer to the case for NPV by former state Representative Laura Brod, was that NPV sounds great “in theory” but is not based upon any “objective fact.” Finally, Gruenhagen referenced a rogues gallery of leftists who have promoted NPV, inferring that their support is reason enough to oppose it.

Brod competently answered each of these concerns. All three distract from the real issue, which is whether or not NPV is the best use of Minnesota’s constitutional power to assign its Electors as it sees fit.

Wherever NPV is discussed, the most prominent opposing argument is that it represents some sort of attack against our republican form of government. This is simply untrue. As Brod explained, the NPV state compact does not alter the Electoral College in any way. It is an application of the College according to the law of the participating states. Legally and philosophically, it proceeds from precisely the same power the current winner-takes-all rule does.

Furthermore, the distinguishing characteristic of a republic is not the absence of democratic process. The popular vote determines who we send to Congress, who we send to City Hall, who we send to the State Capitol, etc. Yet no one objects to these contests as exercises in pure democracy.

Setting that aside, the Right’s interest in NPV has (perhaps counter-intuitively) nothing to do with the actual vote. Affecting the way presidents are elected is a means to an end. The end is affecting the manner in which presidential candidates campaign, and in which presidents govern. As it stands, unless you live in a battleground state (which Minnesota is not), you are virtually ignored in presidential contests. It doesn’t matter how many or how few people live in your state, or where they live within the state. If it’s not purple, it’s a flyover. Establishing NPV would change that dynamic. Suddenly, every vote would count.

This is where many conservatives and libertarians say, “Ah ha! Democracy!” But again, the point is missed. We don’t want every vote to count for the mere sake of every vote counting. We want every vote to count so that presidential candidates will be forced to weigh every state instead of a few battlegrounds. It’s not about democracy. It’s an answer to a de facto oligarchy, where a few special interests in a few special states have disproportionate influence over presidential candidates.

To this, Gruenhagen admits NPV sounds like a good theoretical solution. However, he claims the theory is not backed by any objective fact. With all due respect, many claims from opponents seem far more theoretical than NPV does. Take, for instance, the claim that NPV would result in unprecedented nationwide recounts which could tie up courts in several states for months on end. There is frankly nothing to suggest this possibility. There is no national election infrastructure, and NPV does not (and constitutionally could not) create one. Elections would still be administered precisely the way they are today, according to state law, supervised by the various secretaries of state. Recounts would occur only according to the laws in each state, and affecting the vote tally within states. There is simply no affect a close national popular vote could or would have upon a state’s process for recount. In Minnesota for example, an automatic recount would require a close vote within the state, not nationally. This would be the case whether NPV is enacted or not. It’s the case now.

The final argument deployed against NPV is the most instructive. The movement to enact NPV started amongst the Left in response to the presidential contest of 2000. It was in retaliation for the victory of George W. Bush against Al Gore. Many among the Left swore they would never let such an outcome occur again. They proceeded from the conviction that the winner of the popular vote should be elected to office because they won the popular vote. As noted above, this is not the reason conservatives have signed on to NPV. Frankly, given the rarity with which a president has been elected counter to the popular vote, it’s a silly issue to get hung up on. But we happily let the Left hang themselves on it because there is significant reason to believe it will open up the presidential contest to a broader, more conservative electorate. Regardless, the notion that we ought to judge an idea by the quality of its supporters is a bold-faced fallacy. It’s called an ad hominem attack, and we really ought to leave those to the Left.

Believe it or not, none of the above is an argument for NPV. I am making the argument to have the argument. As it stands, I see many of my libertarian friends and Tea Party cohort dismissing NPV out of hand for reasons which don’t hold muster. In fact, NPV may be a bad idea for Minnesota. The one point Gruenhagen made which I flagged for follow-up was a finding by the CATO Institute that Minnesota’s influence over the presidential contest would decrease by 3% under NPV. I’m curious to learn how they quantified that with such precision. Regardless, it speaks to the real issue we should be debating. Is NPV good for our state? Is it the best way to utilize our Electors? Those are questions of merit. So are concerns about the affect of voter fraud in certain notorious states. But we can’t consider those arguments before getting past the misguided constitutional concern.

Cross-posted at Fightin Words.