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It’s time for all 50 states to matter in presidential elections
Dr. John Koza
Dr. John Koza

Here’s one safe prediction for the 2020 presidential campaign. Twelve so-called “battleground” states will once again command nearly 100 percent of the candidates’ general-election time and attention. The remaining 38 “spectator” states will be totally ignored because they have voted for the same party over the past five presidential elections. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has been enacted into law in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Those 16 jurisdictions possess a total of 196 electoral votes - just 74 shy of revolutionizing the way we elect our president by making every voter politically relevant. The Compact would guarantee the presidency to the candidate receiving the most popular votes across all 50 states and D.C.     

The reason presidential campaigns are concentrated into only about a dozen states is that existing “winner-take-all” state laws award all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate getting the most popular votes within that state. Candidates see no reason to campaign for votes in states where they are so far behind that they cannot possibly win - or where they are so far ahead that they cannot possibly lose.  

In 2016, almost all (94%) of general election campaign events occurred in the 12 closely divided battleground states where Donald Trump’s percentage of the two-party vote was in the narrow eight-point range between 43% and 51%. In 2012, 100% of general election campaign events occurred in 12 battleground states where Mitt Romney’s percentage was between 45% and 51%. 

Unfortunately for our nation, policymaking becomes distorted when presidents base important decisions on the interests of the small handful of politically friendly states. And battleground states receive seven percent more presidentially controlled grants, twice as many disaster declarations, and disproportionately more presidential waivers and exemptions. 

With a keen eye toward the Rust Belt, free-trader George W. Bush imposed steel quotas. Environmentalist Barack Obama largely ignored the 2010 Gulf oil spill in the waters off reliably red Louisiana and Mississippi until tar balls washed up onto the shores of the battleground state of Florida. Donald Trump imposed tariffs and exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Agreement understanding that his Electoral-College majority came via 44,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 23,000 in Wisconsin, and 11,000 in Michigan.  

It is also important to understand that today’s system of electing the president was not created by the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It was not debated at the Constitutional Convention or mentioned in the Federalist Papers. The Constitution left the choice of how to award electoral votes to the states, stipulating: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors... .” Only three states used the winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes in the first presidential election in 1789.  

Widespread adoption of winner-take-all came after Thomas Jefferson lost the presidency by three electoral votes in the nation’s first competitive presidential election in 1796. Jefferson lost because presidential electors were chosen by district in Virginia and North Carolina, and he lost one district in each state to John Adams. 

In 1800, Jefferson wrote Virginia Governor James Monroe, “it is folly and worse than folly” for Virginia not to adopt a winner-take-all law to prevent Adams from receiving any future electoral votes from their home state. Likewise, Adams’ supporters in Massachusetts repealed the state’s district system so Jefferson would not receive any of their electoral votes. By 1832, the dominant political party in almost every state had passed a winner-take-all statute to maximize its clout and stifle the state’s minority party. 

We can’t change history, but we can affect the future to benefit our great nation. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would make every vote equal throughout the United States and ensure that every voter, in every state would be politically relevant in every presidential election.

Dr. John R. Koza is Chair of National Popular Vote.