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Point-counterpoint: The popular-vote conundrum

BY DI EDITORIAL WRITERS | MARCH 5, 2009 7:19 AM

Point — National popular vote is good for Iowa
Neal Schuett

Be brave, Iowa senators. Approve the national popular-vote bill, and take Iowa into the next American political era. Send a message to the Electoral College that its antediluvian system is no longer wanted or needed to elect the president of the United States.

Nationalpopularvote.com cites poll data that report Americans overwhelmingly — almost three-fourths of the respondents — support a move to a popular-vote system. The debacle of the 2000 presidential election is still fresh in the minds of American voters. With more politicians reaching out to their supporters via the Internet, a popular vote could save money and keep the race focused on national issues, not just regional predilections.

The Iowa Independent reports that Iowa Republicans have given the national popular-vote bill the trenchant moniker “The Iowa Voter Irrelevancy Act.” Even Secretary of State Michael Mauro, a Democrat, issued a statement against the bill on Tuesday. Electoral College proponents claim the system is designed to protect the “small states” from being ignored during a presidential campaign. They contend that the system aims to force candidates to campaign in less-populated states in order to earn the extra electoral votes that are assigned to “small states.” On its face, the system does require candidates to campaign in less-populated states to reach the magical 270 votes.

Of course, in practice, candidates only play lip service to any state that isn’t a “battleground state.” The state of Illinois carries 21 electoral votes, one more than Ohio; however, you will be hard-pressed to find any candidate who would justify spending equal amounts of time campaigning in both states. “Small state” or not, candidates only spend money on states that are going to swing the election their way.

The 2008 battleground states of Pennsylvania, and Michigan carried 21 and 17 electoral votes respectively. Their 38 votes are slightly higher than the total votes, 37, for the 10 “smallest states” in country. The Electoral College did nothing to stop President Obama and Sen. John McCain from spending their last hours pleading for voters in the Rust Belt. Why? Many of the smaller states traditionally vote one party or the other; campaign funds are “wasted” by spending large amounts of time in states that vote predominately for a given party.

Under a popular vote system, states would sign a contract to release their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. The electoral system doesn’t vanish, it’s just used differently. Instead of the state of Iowa being truncated to seven votes, Iowa represents around 1.5 million voters. However, from a purely numbers standpoint, Iowa doesn’t gain or lose anything in the switch; we represent roughly 1 percent of the electoral votes and of the population.

Lawmakers in Des Moines were elected by the popular vote. Each member of the Legislature — and even Gov. Chet Culver — must pay attention to the smallest townships and the largest communities in their district in order to secure a seat in Des Moines. An electoral college didn’t force them to visit the “small guys”; they went to the less-populated areas to secure votes pure and simple, and the presidential candidates will have to do the same.

Iowa Republicans and Mauro can play the champions of the “little guy” in the press, but we all know that when Mauro refers to Iowa’s “dominant role” in the election he is referring to our privileged status during the primary season. Iowa should come to grips with receiving less attention; it’s not only more fair to other “small states,” but an inevitable truth given that if Iowa continues to vote Democrat, candidates won’t spend much time or money here regardless of the voting process.

Let’s be honest, it’s not the Electoral College that brings candidates to Iowa; it’s the caucuses. After the caucuses, candidates only sporadically return to Iowa to keep their supporters galvanized during the painfully long election season. As long as Iowa keeps its desired status of “First” away from Michigan or Florida, then politicians will flock to the Hawkeye State to pander to voters, Electoral College or not.

If the president is supposed to represent the people of America, it is the people who should elect their leader.

Counterpoint — National popular vote doesn’t change enough
Katie Gadient

If the debate is to be had, let it be honest. Calls to abolish the Electoral College have been raised for quite some time, gaining particular momentum after the 2000 presidential election. Advocates on either side raise their voices, beat their chests, claim to be defending democracy, and drown the real issues in a cacophony of catch phrases and sound bites. The Electoral College may indeed need to be reformed or removed, but not by way of the national popular-vote movement.

Gov. Chet Culver and Secretary of State Mike Mauro oppose a bill that would hand over Iowa’s electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, regardless of the votes in Iowa. Culver and Mauro, both Democrats are falling in line with Iowa Republicans, who have also come out against the bill, nicknaming it the “Iowa Voter Irrelevancy Act.” The bipartisan opposition reinforces the notion that the Electoral College was created to protect small states and any move away from the current system would disenfranchise voters in less populated states.

The idea that the time-honored Electoral College provides a voice to the voiceless is dubious, at best. Presidential candidates only court voters living in small states, with small populations, when that state acquires the coveted title of “swing state.” Candidates are quite aware it is not in their best interest to spend much time or money in small states that consistently come out in support of one party or another. Iowa, for instance, has voted for the Democratic candidate in five of the last six elections.

Iowa’s role in presidential elections is not determined by its seven electoral votes. Candidates flock to Iowan communities to shake hands and kiss babies because of the caucuses. Iowans are fortunate enough to meet and greet candidates because the state enjoys first-in-the-nation status. The defense of that position effectively disenfranchised democratic voters in Michigan and Florida during the 2008 primary. It seems that a great deal of the distaste with the effort to move away from the Electoral College in Iowa stems from concern over maintaining our special place in presidential elections, something that will not change if our seven electoral votes are granted to the winner of the popular vote.

Proponents of moving away from the current system want voting to be more democratic; America is a democracy and our voting habits should represent this. However, America is a constitutional republic, wherein, at least in theory, the rights of citizens cannot be taken away by a majority vote, as is the case with a democracy. The purpose of the Electoral College is to ensure that all states play an important role in presidential elections. The concern among those clinging to present methods is that large states with large populations will no longer have a voice. The Electoral College, which allots votes based on the total number of U.S. representatives and senators, is a reasonable compromise between states regardless of population size.

Voting reform is necessary, but let’s have a national dialogue about the possible options. This need not be an all or nothing change. Maine and Nebraska, for instance, divide their electoral votes based on the popular vote in each congressional district. Perhaps there is a way to make voters feel that their vote counts without relinquishing all say to states with large populations. If enough large states back the National Popular Vote Act, it will pass with or without the support of Iowa and other small states. Strong-arming the nation to accept reform is not a constructive solution to a legitimate concern. Whether or not the Electoral College actually safeguards small states, overhauling the system of voting in this country is not something that should be decided on a state-by-state level. A constitutional amendment is a lengthy, arduous process and is so for a reason. If voting change is to arise it should be carried out via constitutional amendment, not popular vote.


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