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Activists Fight For A Popular Vote For President

Activists with 'National Popular Vote' say the Electoral College means presid...

Credit: NPR

Above: Activists with 'National Popular Vote' say the Electoral College means presidential candidates only see the swing states whey look at this map, and they want votes in all states to matter just as much.

The group National Popular Vote wants presidents to be elected by every voter, not just those who live in swing states.

— A week ago, First Lady Michelle Obama paid a visit to San Diego. But she wasn't looking for votes for the president, she was looking for campaign money.

It's becoming an old story. California has become the ATM of national political campaigns. But it's not a swing state, so candidates spend virtually none of their time appealing to California voters.

It's something campaign consultant Jason Roe knows very well.

"There's not even a reason to have a conversation about California in a presidential campaign office," said Roe. "There is not a reason to have a conversation about Massachusetts, Wyoming, Alabama. They're not on the table because they're not competitive."

Roe is a Republican political consultant based in San Diego, and he's also a member of a national bipartisan group called National Popular Vote. To him, the problem is the Electoral College. The solution is changing the system so the president is elected by a national popular vote.

In any presidential campaign, California is home to a great wealth of electoral votes. Whoever wins the state wins all of them, and any poll will tell you those votes will almost certainly go to the Democratic candidate. In other words, California is a done deal. There's no point in fighting over it or appealing to the state's voters.

The goal of National Popular Vote is to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote, in which the presidential candidate with the most votes wins. Remember that wasn't the case in the 2000 election, in which Al Gore won the most votes but George W. Bush won the Electoral College, and therefore the presidency.

In the system Roe and his allies imagine, every vote would count the same, regardless of where they were cast.

The members of National Popular Vote say the Electoral College has created a system in which Presidential candidates focus all their energy on winning votes in swing states. Roe argued this doesn't only mean California voters, and voters in most other states, are ignored during elections. It has a real effect on national policy, and how a president does his job.

Here's Roe's take, for instance, on the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"President Obama didn't get boots on the ground, engaged, on the BP oil spill until oil washed ashore in Florida," he said. "Mississippi... Alabama? It was a tragedy, but it didn't warrant him being there. So, their policy making is driven by the Electoral College."

To change the way we elect presidents, we have to either amend the Constitution, or take the path that National Popular Vote has chosen. They are asking each state to approve a compact saying they will award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

The compact would go into effect when enough states sign on so that it truly would give the popular vote winner the majority of electoral votes as well.

Many political scientists are at least sympathetic to the cause. Ronald King, a professor of political science at San Diego State University, said reforming the Electoral College is a no-brainer if we believe government should reflect the popular majority. But majority rule of the people was not something America's founders were entirely comfortable with.

"And so we're stuck with this very complicated 200-year-old system that wasn't especially well thought out," said King.

Another political scientist, UC San Diego professor Thad Kousser, isn't sure a national popular vote for president is a good idea. He fears that having to fight for votes in every state, and in the country's largest media markets, would cause an enormous increase in the cost of a presidential campaign.

"That would put a premium on who could earn the most money, and that might be bad for democracy in the long run," said Kousser.

Roe disagreed.

"I don't know how somebody argues that it is more important that we spend less money talking to voters in 10 states than spending more and talking to voters in 50 states," said Roe.

So far the compact, sponsored by National Popular Vote, has been passed by the legislatures of nine states, including California. Interestingly, the list also includes Illinois, Hawaii and Massachusetts. In short, they are all majority-Democratic states.

Roe said he realizes it may seem strange to some that a Republican like himself has become an activist in favor of a popular vote. Much of the energy in the movement comes from Democrats who were upset that Gore won the popular vote but lost the 2000 election. To this, Roe said let's just wait and see what happens on election day.

"I think if we saw something that some people have speculated is a possibility, that Mitt Romney could win the popular vote but lose the electoral college," he said, "I have a feeling my friends on the right may look a little more favorably on National Popular Vote."

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