Show Notes - National Popular Vote
On November 22 this year (2020), we released our first podcast - an interview with Vermont State Senator Christopher Pearson regarding an organization known as National Popular Vote.
National Popular Vote is a 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation dedicated to the promotion of something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact -- an agreement among states to send all their presidential electors corresponding to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. Essentially, it holds states to an agreement to get around the arcane rules of the electoral college by guaranteeing that the winner of the national popular vote is sent to the White House.
Sure, we'd like to get rid of the electoral college, but that would require a constitutional amendment. That may eventually happen, but with the solution presented by National Popular Vote, we may very well achieve this goal before the next presidential election in 2024.
National Popular vote is just one of several solutions being pursued by people and organizations all over the country who are determined to keep our democracy alive. In the coming months, you can expect to hear from more of these organizations, including FairVote, the Center for Competitive Democracy, Represent.Us and many more.
Below is the transcript of our conversation with Christopher Pearson. The interviewer in this case is Dan Schaefer.
[Begin Transcript: 02:10]
SCHAEFER: Senator Christopher Pearson. Welcome to democracy on the move and thank you for joining us today.
PEARSON: It's a pleasure to be with you, Dan. Thanks for having us.
SCHAEFER: So let's get some background first. Can you walk us through a brief history of the electoral system in the United States? Bear in mind that our founding fathers must've known that the winner of the electoral vote may not align with the winner of the popular vote. Or did they? I mean, what was on their minds when they created the system of voting for a commander in chief and why is it no longer applicable?
PEARSON: Well, I'm not a historian, but my understanding is that the founders frankly, could not agree on how to elect the president. They went round and round. This was the most debated topic at the founding convention and it wasn't until the last day that they settled on the electoral college as the way to elect the president. But even there, it was very loose. What they said is we'll have the electoral college and we’ll give States a number of electors based on their congressional representation. And we'll insist that to be president, you have to have a majority of the electors. They then did something that is very in keeping with what they were doing across the board, which was, they farmed a lot of the responsibility out to the States. So Article Two, Section One in our constitution says each state shall appoint, as the legislature thereof, may direct a number of electors.
PEARSON: So my state of Vermont gets three electors from the constitution and then the state law directs how those electors will function. We use winner take all. So Joe Biden gets more votes than Donald Trump in Vermont. He gets all three of our electors. This is state law though. This is what turns Vermont blue on the election map. As we watch it on election night, now 48 States plus DC use the winner take all law, but that is state law. Maine and Nebraska do it by congressional district. So in fact this year, both States split; they went Maine and majority for Biden, but Trump got one elector. In Nebraska, the exact opposite. Different state laws. My point is that asking what the founders envisioned is, is very impossible, really. And it's clear that they did not envision the system today. What they envisioned was a process, sort of like along the lines of States, you got some electors figure out how to make them work for yourselves. It took many decades until we had the winner take all system being across the board. Like we see it today where that dreaded red blue map pops up every four years. And, you know, depending on a small number of States turning one color or another you'd cheer or cry. That's not in the constitution. That's not what the founders necessarily envisioned. That is state law and sort of the current interpretation that's where national popular vote comes in and is making its change.
SCHAEFER: It's interesting. You mentioned, Article 2, Section 1 of the constitution. I was just reading over it myself; a fairly short read actually. It says nothing about people voting for the president. It's all about, like I say, the state legislatures; figure it out and just send their electors and very little encumbrances upon those electors. Other than the fact they can't be legislators themselves, but they can basically do what they want. And so it's it, I guess, just by tradition that the States designate their electors on, and for the most part winner take all and they take the entire slew of electors, even if one person wins by just say one vote, or in the case of Georgia, I think it's like 11,000 votes turns the whole state blue.
PEARSON: Yeah. Yeah, but it's not tradition. That's state law. And that wasn't the case in the very first presidential election, three States used winner take all, they all went on to repeal it, in fact. And States for several decades were trying all sorts of different things with their electors to figure out what worked for them and for the country. Winner take all has been really the heart of our critique for national popular vote of the damaging impact of our presidential elections. The reason we see just about the entire campaign focused on 12 so-called battleground States, virtually ignoring and taking for granted 38 States is because of winner take all. If you happen to be in a state that could go red or could go blue, they shower enormous amounts of attention on you in a campaign. They're organizing at the grassroots, they're polling, you they're visiting, they’re advertising, they're shaping their platform to win your votes.
PEARSON: That’s because of winner take all. The reason we see five of our presidents be the second place candidate is because of winner take all. The reason that we see in this election, Joe Biden winning plainly. I mean very obviously by at least 5 million votes, pretty much on election night and then the whole country waits in suspense for five to seven days while we figure out who's going to be the president is because of winter all. In the end, 46,000 votes coming out of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia happened to go the right way to match the country's choice by over 5 million votes. That's a huge margin to win an election and yet have the outcome be in doubt. This is because of winner take all. So National Popular Vote goes right at that winner take all as the root of the problem and is working through States to have them change winner take all to the national popular vote.
SCHAEFER: Well, why not try to do what, say Maine and Nebraska do where they split their electoral votes? It’s not a guarantee obviously that the math will still work out, but it gets you closer anyways, right? Where they basically give the electors based on the state vote itself so that it's not winner take all, they can split their votes., where they, uh,
PEARSON: Well, that's not quite accurate. They do it based on congressional district. Still Maine has two congressional districts. If the Northern district in this case, went for Trump, he gets one elector. [The] Southern district went for Biden. Biden gets one elector. Then the overall state total was in favor of Biden. So he gets two extra. Nebraska does the same thing. It's called the congressional district system. There's two reasons why that's not an ideal solution. First of all, you mentioned guarantee -- it does not guarantee the person who gets the most votes in the country becomes president. I said, that's a pretty big flop. Every other election in the country, and in the world, I believe when you get the most votes, you win the election. The second reason has to do with, well, there's three reasons. The second reason has to do with competitive.
PEARSON: You want an election to . . . you want candidates to approach everybody in the country. They should not be taking any corner of the country, any state of the country for granted right now, they're taking 70% of the country, about 38 States completely for granted because you're in a safe red state or a safe blue state. Nevermind that in the blue state of California, Trump got some 5 million votes from out of California, completely ignored. All of those Republicans in California, their vote was meaningless, their electors when to Biden. So if you had a district system, you don't make more of the country competitive. In fact, you make less of the country competitive, because we'd go from about 12 battleground States to maybe 20 or so congressional districts being competitive. And that's assuming you could do it around the country, which is not possible, realistically.
PEARSON: The other thing is, think about redistricting. Redistricting is a highly partisan broken feature. I would argue in our democratic process today, and imagine if presidential electors were at stake, it would only make that worse. So you're not guaranteeing the person with the most votes wins. You're not guaranteeing if you have a district system that candidates will court votes everywhere. And you're actually emphasizing a partisan problem that we already have with Gerrymandering and districts. What national popular vote does is deliver those promises. Every votes equal, you get the most votes. You win. Candidates are forced to go everywhere. And everybody is engaged. Every vote is equal, you get the most votes you win. That's what National Popular Vote is able to guarantee.
SCHAEFER: Speaking of that though, I'm just going to get on the other side of the table here and play devil's advocate. As you mentioned, one of the promises of the national popular vote interstate compact is that, uh, presidential candidates will be forced to campaign for everybody over all 50 States, not just in the battleground States. So if you consider that say, the big population centers, say the 10 largest cities in the U. S., contain over 25 million people, or about 8% of the population -- how about the argument that presidential campaigns would focus on those big population centers and still, you know, fly over the Midwest? How does that work? What's the argument there?
PEARSON: Well, you don't win an election if you get 8% of the vote, right? Actually, if you take the hundred largest cities in the country, you get about 19% of the nation. It's a fluke in a sense, but 19% of the nation lives in the most rural parts of our country. And so we're quite balanced. And candidates are not going to only court the 19% that happen to live in the cities and ignore the rural 19%. Not at all. A vote is a vote is a vote. Downtown Manhattan is just as good a vote as the western part of Wyoming. And so when every vote is equal -- and we have illustrations of this in every state. Because every state has cities and every state elects a governor and U.S. Senators based on a one person, one vote system, where every vote is equal. And if you get the most votes you win.
PEARSON: You don't see candidates for governor only camping out in the cities and then ignoring rural votes. In fact, you see a lot of evidence that rural votes, for instance, if you look at the 2016 election, Donald Trump did not win the big cities in Pennsylvania, but he won Pennsylvania. The rural vote really turned out for him and delivered the state to him. So the importance of rural votes is very clear in all of our elections. And if we counted every vote across the country equally they would play a significant role, a fair role representative of their weight in the population, and candidates are going to react to that. I like looking at Ohio. Ohio is a good indicator because it's been a battleground state. It’s been actually the battleground state and some of our past presidential elections.
PEARSON: And they got several big cities and a lot of rural counties. We broke it down by campaign events. And these numbers may be imprecise, but roughly 54% of people in Ohio live in the cities, and we were shocked to find 54% of the presidential events - the campaign rallies - happened in big cities. I think it's 23% of the citizens in Ohio live in rural parts of the state. And literally 23% of the campaign happened in small towns. So these are pretty sophisticated campaigns here. They're not sort of wondering what they'll do next week. They have a real deep analysis of where people live and where their voters are and a strategy to go get them. And they reflect the population within a state like Ohio, where every vote is equal and [if you] get the most votes you win the prize.
PEARSON: So I think we could anticipate that that would happen across the country under a national popular vote. And I think it's important for listeners to understand, even in the 2020 election where we had a very strange election because of the pandemic, and it was far fewer events - something like 96% of the campaign happened in 12 States. When you look at the money, when you look at the events that they held, what about the other 38 States? Some of those States are Houston and Texas, uh, Houston in Texas. I mean, Texas and California, excuse me. There's a lot of big cities in those States. They deserve some campaign attention. They're both getting completely ignored. The other - sorry to ramble on here - but sometimes when people ask us about big cities, they're really thinking to themselves, well, the Democrats live in big cities, so popular vote will favor the Democrats because it will favor the big cities.
PEARSON: There's a real balance though . . . there's not a hundred percent of voters in Manhattan that vote for the Democrat. I mentioned Houston, you know, that's a conservative city. There's a real balance in this country that the four biggest States are really blended politically. When you add Texas and Florida into New York and California, you recognize we've got some big populated red States and big populated blue States. And our country is very divided, demographically and politically. That shouldn't mean that we tolerate a system that we have today where it's sort of a roulette wheel, right? Again, Biden won. And I happen to support Joe Biden, but no matter what, look at the system, he was millions of votes ahead. And by fluke, we were dependent on some 46,000 votes out of Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, to make sure that the will of the American voter was honored. I mean, why would we have a tolerated system where the margin is 5 million votes and we're dependent on courts and judges and recounts to uphold the choice of the American people? This is really bad for us as a country. We've got to make this change.
SCHAEFER: You know, I think, one of the arguments too, was that, because there's so much focus on these, battleground States that even in non-election years, presidents tend to favor those States when it comes to . . . they get like twice as many disaster declarations when the state has issues and natural disaster issues . . . they tend to get more grants. I mean, they tend to get a lot more tender, loving care because they are battleground States.
PEARSON: They absolutely do. And both sides do this. George Bush was a president who believed in free trade, but he put tariffs on steel because he was looking at Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obama -- if you look at the horizon oil spill in the Gulf, he talked to the nation about it from the White House as the oil was lapping up on Mississippi and Louisiana. Literally the day it arrived, the oil reached Florida, Air Force One was on the ground in Florida. This is not a coincidence. These are illustrations, right. And I don't, I don't really fault either party for this, that's the system. And they've got to win Florida as an example, or it's a key state, but Mississippi and Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, those States should matter too. There's a lot of voters there and they deserve more than being sort of at the back . . . in the nosebleed seats while we have these debates, right. I think every voter should be equal. We should all have an expectation that we are thought about by the leader of the nation. And that's just not the case. That's truly not the case in about 70% of the country.
SCHAEFER: So let me ask you a question then about . . . some of the mechanics of how this works. So we're not into abolishing the electoral system altogether, cause that would take a constitutional amendment. And if the 27th amendment is any guide, that could take over 200 years to get ratified. That's an outlier by the way. But the States have this compact -- this agreement among each other -- that they will give all their electors to whoever wins the popular vote. But what holds States to this promise? Who's to say that a political party that is hungry for power won't suddenly change course during the election and change their laws? Especially if the state is run by, say, a super majority of senators and representatives of the one party that stands to gain the presidency. How can we guarantee that this won't happen -- that they'll just suddenly change their mind and say, well, you know, we're going to go back to our normal winner take all electoral system and the heck with the rest of you guys. The compact then falls apart and you're back to where you started.
PEARSON: Well, let's just back up and make sure people understand how our bill works. Okay. So I'll use, let's say, North Carolina, as an example, North Carolina has, I think, 15 electors. They use winner take all. So Donald Trump got more votes than Joe Biden in North Carolina. Donald Trump gets 15 electors. These are actual people. There's a slate of them. They're not made by the Republican party and the democratic party in North Carolina because Donald Trump gets the most votes in North Carolina. The 15 Republican electors will go to the Capitol in the middle of December and they will vote for Donald Trump. That's state law, that's winner take all. If North Carolina adopts our bill, then once it has passed by enough other States -- and we'll talk about that in a minute -- the process is different and the law is different and it's not guidance, it's the law.
PEARSON: So the law would say that North Carolina has agreed to award it's 15 electors, not to whoever gets the most votes in North Carolina, but whoever gets the most votes in the country. So looking back at 2020, the secretary of state of North Carolina would say, okay, and Joe Biden got more votes than Donald Trump. You 15 democratic electors, you're now North Carolina's electors. And I'll see you in the Capitol, in the middle of December. So in that sense, the mechanics works. The mechanics . . . it works and we say it guarantees a popular vote for president because there's a trigger. We've now passed 16 States -- 15 States plus DC. Those States hold 196 electors. Nothing has changed in those States yet the trigger where this takes effect is that it has to pass enough States that all together, cumulatively, those States have 270 electors. That’s enough to elect the president.
PEARSON: So when we pass States with another 74 electors, all of these States together are agreeing to award their electors to the candidate who gets the most votes in the country. So Joe Biden gets the most votes. The compacting States that have passed our bill observed that he's won by over 5 million votes. And the democratic electors in this case from those States go and do their job. And that way Joe Biden is guaranteed at least 270 electors. Now you ask about holding the state to this law. Our bill is what's called an interstate compact. That is a way -- there's hundreds of these -- that States work together in a contract. So it is bound by the impairments clause, just like if you and I signed a contract, I can't just change my mind. That contract and these have been upheld by the courts over the many hundreds of years, centuries, that the country has entertained these and had them on the books.
PEARSON: When a state passes our bill, the bill itself, the contract itself, has a mechanism to get out of it. And this is common in all interstate compacts. And that mechanism, which the state enters into freely, says that you cannot withdraw in the last six months of a presidential term. So what we're trying to do there is protect against these kinds of games between basically the conventions, where the nominees get named officially, and the inauguration day. So even a super majority, as you supposed, that passes a bill to go back to a winner-take-all hall -- if they do that in September or October, or even November of an election year -- by the rules of the compact by the contract that that state is in, that change will not take effect until after January 20th. And in that way, we're protected. And that's baked right into the legislation that States are passing. There are also other protections outlined in, in federal law, but that one is there and several of them are ironclad. But the withdrawal clause of our legislation is modeled after withdrawal clauses in several interstate compacts. Many of them have been challenged in courts and all of them have been upheld. And this is just a basic contract, basic fairness of how we operate in a country of laws.
SCHAEFER: So that certainly puts that to rest. I was afraid that something like that would happen, just knowing how certain state legislatures work, but it sounds to me like they're locked in for at least six months before the end of a presidential term. It's locked in, so that's good. So we're coming up toward the end here, but I wanted to just really quickly ask you what the progress is. You mentioned 15 States plus DC have already . . . passed this bill through their legislatures. You have 74 more electors to go. I think Colorado just recently became part of the club, so that at least 74 electors to go. How realistic is it to get this done by the next presidential election?
PEARSON: We're pushing hard. And we think it is realistic by 2024. So in other words, we've watched the last of the red blue map on election night, and rather can acknowledge individuals that live in every state: Democrats in Oklahoma, or conservatives in Colorado, or deep blue Vermont. We have passed in one chamber or another, in another handful of States that total 88 electors, we need 74 more before we've hit our trigger. And we've already made progress in a variety of States that total 88 electors between them. In your state of Missouri, for instance, we haven't passed the chamber, but we have had a bulk of Republicans sponsoring our bill over the years. In Michigan, we've passed the house in 2008. We've had a few years ago, a majority of the Republicans in the Senate sponsored our bill.
PEARSON: We haven't been able to piece it all together, but this project takes time. So we are quite confident we can do it in the next three years. And again, we've just watched an election that, you know, was a decisive national margin and came down to this razor thin fluke of an outcome in two or three States. And that created chaos that entered the prospect of lawyers and judges determining our election. I think a whole lot of Americans look at that system and say this is not the way we should do it. There's gotta be a better way. Why don't we just count every vote equally and get the most votes you win? I think we can do that. You mentioned Colorado, we did pass the ballot there. We won in rural areas. We won in suburbs, we won in the cities. This is a popular idea across the country, and we're quite confident legislatures are going to take it up in earnest, and hopefully we can get to the finish line in time for the 2024 election.
SCHAEFER: So we're at the end of our conversation here, but I want to ask very quickly though, what can people do to help? I mean, what would help push this over the finish line before 2024?
PEARSON: Thanks, Dan. There's a lot of good information at nationalpopularvote.com, including a tool there that makes it very easy for people to reach out to legislators and say, hey, come on, pass the National Popular Vote bill. I support this. That's the simplest way for people to get involved. We're also a nonprofit. We take donations, we're looking for volunteers. You can spread the word on social media. So nationalpopularvote.com has a lot of the answers to how people can engage. And a lot of the answers to questions that maybe we didn't get to here today. So I encourage people to check out our website. And let me just say grassroots pressure on this issue is vital to our success. We've seen this across the country. Legislatures are busy, they're dealing with a pandemic. They're dealing with unemployment, they're dealing with a hurting economy. It needs a nudge from people to make sure National Popular Vote reaches a sort of a higher level of priority and legislature. So I hope people will reach their elected officials and advocate on our behalf. That'd be a great help.
SCHAEFER: It's interesting that you mentioned that Missouri here, we have a super majority of Republicans in both the house and the Senate. It’s interesting that . . . it's getting traction here, it sounds like you're saying. Republicans have benefited from the electoral system in 2000 and then 2016. Because in both cases, those are the two of the five cases where presidents were elected who did not finish first. But still . . . there’s still enough angst about this whole issue that even the Republicans in Missouri can help get on board this thing. So that's, that's really good. That's good to hear that.
PEARSON: We're also more and more recognizing that the razor thin way we run our presidential elections opens us up to foreign threats, to fraud. People say, well, if you count every vote equally, it'll open it up to fraud. Well, if you're dependent on a margin of 46,000 votes, even though the national margin is 5 million, and those 46,000 votes come down to a handful of predictable States, that's really vulnerable to foreign influence and so on. So that's an argument that is nonpartisan. People recognize that the American people need to have confidence in our system. And the current system just does not deliver that. No matter which side of the aisle you sit on,
SCHAEFER: That's a really good point. It is a significant security threat, when it comes down to just a few thousand votes that are against several million.
So again, that’s nationalpopularvote.com. That's all one word: nationalpopularvote.com. Check it out. And we've been talking with Senator Christopher Pearson, a two term state Senator in the Vermont legislature and secretary of National Popular Vote. Senator Pearson, thank you very much for stopping by and joining us today.
PEARSON: My great pleasure. Thanks for having us.