Responding to State Senator James Sheehan of Rhode Island on The National Popular Vote Plan

State Senator James Sheehan

State Senator James C. Sheehan (D-RI) wrote an article titled The National Popular Vote compact would sideline our state. This article was published in the Westerly Sun of Westerly, Rhode Island.

The National Popular Vote Plan is an interstate compact, whereby participating states would agree to allocate their electoral votes to the winner of the National Popular Vote, as opposed to the candidate who secures the most votes in their state. The compact would take effect when enough states (constituting the requisite 270 electoral votes required to win the Presidential election) agree to participate. Currently 8 states and the District of Columbia, constituting 132 Electoral votes, have ratified the compact.

Mr. Sheehan argues that under the Plan “big states and big money would be the likely winners and the Rhode Island’s voice would go from small to obscure and insignificant.”

In actuality however, no candidate could win an election by focusing solely on the largest populated state(s). These states tend to cancel each other out; creating an environment wherein candidates will have to garner votes in small and medium sized states as well. California and Texas are the nation’s two largest states. California has voted for the Democratic Presidential nominee in the last five elections. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the state with 61% of the vote. There was no serious effort by the Republicans to even contest the state.

Contrariwise, Texas, the second biggest state, has not voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976. There has been no serious effort on the part of Democrats to win the state since 1992. In 2008, while Democrat Barack Obama won the Presidency with a comfortable 52.9% of the vote, Republican John McCain won the loan star state with a formidable 55.4% of the vote.Ironically, under the current winner-take-all regime of awarding Presidential electors, which is employed in 48 states, both large and small states are ignored. The three largest states, California, Texas, and New York are used by candidates merely as ATM machines.

Presidential candidates raise campaign money from these states’ benefactors, but make no effort to cultivate support from these states’ voters. Contrariwise, of the 13 smallest states, only New Hampshire is a perennial showdown state. The other 12 states are “safe states” which receive no attention from the Presidential candidates.

As for the influence of “big money,” the same amount of money would be raised under the National Popular Vote Plan as is raised presently. The only change is that the preponderance of the money collected “would not” be spent in just 15 battleground states.

Under the National Popular Vote Plan, the political voice of the Ocean State would actually be amplified. Currently, the state attracts no attention from Presidential candidates because it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the state will be won by the Democratic nominee by a wide margin. The state last went for a Republican in 1984, as part of Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide victory. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama carried 38 of the state’s 39 municipalities without even campaigning in the state.

Under the National Popular Vote Plan, every vote throughout the nation will be in play. No voter will be ignored because of his or her disadvantageous geopolitical residence. Presidential campaigns will have one goal, to muster as many votes as possible. Under the current status quo, there is no electoral reason for a candidate to pay any attention to Rhode Island’s commercial fishermen, its manufacturing industry, or the state’s Agricultural output.

Under the National Popular Vote Plan, Presidential candidates will have causes belie to address these issues. They will have an electoral incentive to open campaign offices in Rhode Island, send surrogates to address Rhode Islanders, and to cultivate and galvanize their political bases. Candidates would spend their campaign war chests not just within the 15 or so showdown states, but would likely spend money throughout the nation, including in Rhode Island.

Mr. Sheehan warns: “The legislation also proposes to give our state’s electoral votes not necessarily to the presidential candidates of our residents’ choice but to the candidate who wins a majority of votes across the nation.”

This statement flies in the face of the fact that more than 70% of Rhode Island voters support a National Popular Vote. When an national election is decided against a voter’s chosen candidate, the voter is not likely to take solace in the fact that the candidate captured their state. A supporter of John Kerry from Rhode Island in 2004 was probably not reveling in the fact that the Democratic nominee won the Ocean State.

The national election is what counts for the voter, and Kerry lost.

At the state level where a National Popular Vote is employed, there is no focus on how a candidate fared in a certain municipality. For example, a voter in Smithfield, Rhode Island was probably not focusing on the fact that Republican Gubernatorial nominee John F. Robitaille handily won the municipality. Instead, the voter was more likely to be focusing on the fact that Independent Candidate Lincoln Chafee won the state.

Mr. Sheehan admonishes that under the National Popular Vote Plan: “Major population centers would become even more important in the race for president, while towns and rural areas could be largely ignored.” Despite Mr. Sheehan’s conclusions, the nation’s large urban areas comprise only a smidgen of the total electorate. In fact, the nation’s top 25 cities comprise only 12% of the electorate, and the nation’s five largest populated cities constitute just 6% of the electorate. Accordingly, to win the national popular vote, a candidate must appeal to the large majority of Americans who do not live in these urban centers of which Mr. Sheehan speaks. It would be politically foolhardy for a Presidential candidate to focus exclusively or even largely on urban centers.

We see the ineffectiveness of this argument at the state level. In 2010, Texas Governor Rick Perry was re-elected by 13 percentage points, despite being overwhelmingly defeated in the state’s two largest cities, Houston and Dallas. In fact, these two cities are two of the highest populated U.S. cities. Furthermore, George Pataki served three terms as Governor of New York, despite being wiped out in the nation’s largest city, New York. Finally, California has elected four Governors in the last 46 years who did not come close to carrying the state’s largest city, Los Angeles.

Lastly, Mr. Sheehan advises that supporters of the National Popular Vote Plan “should submit this idea as a constitutional amendment, instead of exploiting a loophole in constitutional law and trying to affect voting change through state legislatures.” Perhaps Mr. Sheehan does not realize that the National Popular Vote Plan in no way circumvents the U.S. Constitution. In fact, there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution mandating that the President must be selected by a particular electoral method. Accordingly, there is absolutely no need for a Constitutional Amendment to change the method that states use for the awarding of electors. The Founding Fathers could not arrive at a resolution as to how to award electoral votes at the Constitutional Convention. Given this impasse, they decided to delegated “plenary authority” to the states to award their electors, as reflected in Article ll, Section 1, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” Accordingly, each state has autonomy to select electors in any way that it deems fit.

In conclusion, the National Popular Vote Plan would give Rhode Island voters the seat at the electoral table that they are currently lacking. Rhode Island was the first state to declare independence from Britain. Under the National Popular Vote Plan, Presidential candidates will treat the Ocean State with the respect that it deserves.