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Review: MAR Hot Topics ~The National Popular Vote

Dean Johnson

Is it an idea whose time has come? “It” is the “National Popular Vote” campaign, backed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the subject of the March 13 LWVOC Hot Topics program.

The sold-out event featured Dr. Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign-Urbana and a one-time law clerk for the late Justice Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Dr. Rick Foglesong, retired Rollins College professor and an expert on Florida and U.S. politics.

Amar said the NPV drive is based on a 2001 proposal that he, his brother and another law professor came up with in the aftermath of the 2000 Bush-Gore outcome – when Bush won the Electoral College and Gore won the nationwide popular vote. It wouldn’t do away with the Electoral College, as some suppose (the E.C. can be eliminated only by constitutional amendment) but would allot a state’s E.C. votes to whoever wins the nationwide popular vote, effectively making the popular vote paramount and changing the way the E.C. operates.

The constitutional amendment “workaround” would involve state legislatures establishing laws favoring the NPV proposal. So far, in fact, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted such legislation, accounting for 172 electoral votes (270 needed for victory). All of those states are Democratic blue, and Amar says Republican red states will have to sign on to make it all work. He thinks that’s possible because there are red states like Arizona wherein the voters like the NPV idea even though the state legislature may be wary (a 2015 poll showed 78 percent of Arizona voters favoring NPV). “When popular sentiment is on your side,” Amar noted, it’s a positive thing.

Amar also said NPV has parallels with the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and allowing for popular election of U.S. Senators rather than their being appointed by state legislatures. He cited the 1858 U.S. Senate debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas – although the Illinois Legislature would appoint the senator, the two debaters took their case directly to the voters, hoping they would sway the Legislature.

Another facet of the NPV proposal has to do with purple states, often called swing states and battleground states. Amar said those states could be giving up some of their clout because they are often a big focus during presidential campaigns. Vote-rich Florida and Ohio, for instance, get a lot more candidate visits and ads than, say, Alabama and Nebraska.

“Campaigns spend time in the states that are in play,” Amar said, so Florida might not go along with NPV.

NPV would not necessarily benefit one party over the other. In the every-vote-counts scenario, look at California and Florida in 2016. Trump won Florida 4,617,886 to Clinton’s 4,504,975. And Clinton won California 8,753,788 to Trump’s 4,483,810. Those losing tallies are both big additions to the candidates’ national totals.

Amar sees NPV as an incentive to vote, but he also noted that election procedures vary widely from state to state.

“Democracy is terrible,” he said, “but better than anything else.”

To follow the progress of NPV and to learn more about the proposal, visit nationalpopularvote.com or lwvfl.org/issue/npv, which features the state league’s position on the proposal.

Wednesday’s Hot Topics was the final one to be overseen by Andrea Kobrin and Ann Hellmuth, who are passing the baton to Barbara Lanning and Sue Gilman. After more than 10 years at the Topics desk, A&A deserve a rest, and we all thank them for years of provocative and informative programs.

Submitted by Dean Johnson