Electoral College Reform Hinges on New York

Lost in the wake of Pride Weekend and the legalization of gay marriage is the story of New York’s failed attempts to pass the National Popular Vote bill, helping to abolish the Electoral College. For two years now, the bill has passed New York’s State Senate only to die at the hands of the Assembly. During the 2011 legislative session, a majority of Assemblymen signed on as co-sponsors, leaving little doubt that an opportunity to vote on the bill would have resulted in victory. The last remaining obstacle is therefore State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose approval is required to hold a vote on the bill.

The Electoral College is an archaic institution whose abolition is long overdue. Speaker Silver thus wields considerable power over the country’s electoral map: He can allow the bill to die again next year, and thus condone the College’s senseless injustices; or he can finally allow a vote, and in doing so revolutionize our country’s conception of political equality. 

If the National Popular Vote bill were to pass, New York would award all of its electoral votes in presidential elections to the national popular vote winner, regardless of who receives the most votes in New York State. The bill would only take effect when states constituting at least 270 electoral votes have signed on, guaranteeing that the national popular vote winner would be the winning candidate.  Adoption by New York would likely provide the Popular Vote movement with considerable momentum: At 29 Electoral votes, New York is tied with Florida for third most populous state in the nation, meaning any change to its voting dynamics would hold significant weight in any presidential campaign’s strategy. Additionally, adherence to the movement by a large state would set a precedent for other states to pass similar legislation in the future, greatly increasing the likelihood of universal implementation.  Given that California governor Jerry Brown has also expressed his approval for the legislation, it is conceivable that the 270 votes required for effect could be obtained in the near future.

As evinced by the 2000 election, the Electoral College’s one function today is to distort close elections so that the candidate receiving the most votes is not necessarily the winner. Although some defend the College as a necessary component of federalism, the preservation of small state interests — to the extent that those interests exist — is guaranteed by both the Tenth Amendment and the existence of two houses of Congress. Nothing in our Constitution states that the Executive branch must reflect our federalist system through its method of presidential selection. Other original functions of the College, such as its facilitation of the 3/5 rule (wherein slaves could not vote, but were counted in the census, thus artificially inflating the number of Electoral votes in southern states), are all now thoroughly obsolete.

New York State itself stands to benefit from abandoning the College. Given the State’s propensity to vote Democrat in presidential elections, a departure from the statewide winner-take-all method can only be beneficial to its residents. While proponents of the Electoral College argue that a benefit of the College is its promotion of small states’ rights, this assertion hardly holds water: Election data from previous cycles demonstrates that battleground states are the ones that receive a disproportionate amount of attention from campaigns, both with regard to issues and candidate visits. States that are consistently red and blue, including most of the country’s smallest and largest states (the three biggest states as of the previous census — California, New York and Texas — are reliably Democratic, Democratic and Republican, respectively), are almost completely ignored. Should New York choose to award its votes to the national popular vote winner, incentives would arise for presidential candidates from both parties to target the state.

Last month, Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the 2012 election would be decided in 14 states (New York was not among them). “The electoral map has shrunk,” he proclaimed, in a statement that reeks of voter disenfranchisement and political inequality. In order to truly fulfill our Founders’ vision of “liberty and justice for all,” the United States must adapt to its changing circumstances by creating an electoral system where all 50 states are on the “map.”

With the near-impossibility of passing a Constitutional amendment, widespread adoption of the National Popular Vote movement is the next best solution.

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