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Natelson: How ‘National Popular Vote’ favors the political left

The National Popular Vote (NPV) movement claims to be non-partisan. Yet all the state legislatures endorsing it are controlled by Democrats. Except for a few token (paid?) spokesmen, its leading advocates are all left-of-center.

There is a very good reason for this imbalance: NPV is structured to bias presidential elections in favor of the Left. If NPV were adopted (admittedly, a big “if”) and if the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional (an even bigger “if”), NPV would enable left-of-center candidates to win most presidential elections throughout the foreseeable future.

In this column, we’ll examine how left wing candidates win governorships in states where many, or most, voters do not share their values. Then we’ll see how nationalizing NPV would extend that to the presidency, only more so.

NPV advocates point out that most states elect their governors by bare pluralities, without runoff elections. However, the lessons from state experience are very different from what NPV advocates would have us believe.

Let’s focus on the office of governor. A state governor is more than a mere legislator or administrator. The governor becomes the public image of the state. Individual voters may have policy differences with a gubernatorial candidate, but they often look beyond those if a candidate shares the state’s traditional ideals and values.

Yet under the bare-plurality system, gubernatorial candidates on the left-fringe of the viable political spectrum have been able to win repeatedly, even with values antithetical to those of many or most constituents.

How can this happen? For “progressive” candidates, the key is to drive up the vote in areas where many people are dependent on government. Dependent electors typically vote to protect their government benefits, often irrespective of other values. The three areas with the most dependent voters are (1) large cities, (2) state capitals, and (3) university towns. If a “progressive” candidate can pull sufficient votes from those three areas, it doesn’t matter much what the rest of the state may think.

Let’s look at the big-city element: Concentrated population offers unique opportunities for vote inflation. In urban areas, it is easier to undertake ballot harvesting, poll drives, door-to-door canvassing, and even outright corruption. “Progressive” activists and party operatives provide a source of manpower to bring about vote inflation.

Now, NPV advocates claim a national big-city strategy would not work because cities of more than 365,000 comprise only fifteen percent of the population. But as just explained, the concentration of population in cities enables political operatives to convert 15 percent of the population into a larger share of the reported vote. Moreover, 365,000 is probably too high a cut-off for the definition of “big city.” Many smaller municipalities have populations concentrated enough to provide opportunities for vote inflation, and many of those smaller municipalities exhibit big-city voting patterns. A good example is the New York City suburb of Yonkers, population just under 200,000; another is Billings, Montana, population 110,000.

But the most important objection to the NPV big-city defense is that it is a straw-man argument because “progressive” political strategy rests on more than big cities.

It also relies on state capitals. These are often big cities, but even when they are not, they are typically loaded with government employees, dependents of government employees, government contractors, and businesses that rely on government funding.

Not surprising, therefore, even smaller state capitals typically vote Democrat. New York State’s capital of Albany (pop. 97,000) is a Democratic stronghold in generally-Republican upstate. Springfield, Illinois (115,000) is a Democratic island in Illinois’ Republican downstate.

The third leg of the “progressive” base consists of university towns. Democratic lawmakers have made state university expansion a priority. This is not surprising if you consider how university towns vote. What is surprising is that many naive Republican legislators have voted with them.

Today we are witnessing the results: State universities have changed from relatively small centers of learning into medium-sized cities, nearly all of which vote Democrat—even Socialist. In many of them, real learning is less important than many other activities, including politics. Occupants of those cities are highly dependent on government, and their concentrated population makes them easy targets for professional “progressive” activists.

One reason that California has become a reliably Democratic state is that it harbors nearly a quarter of a million students in the UC university system, nearly half a million in the California State University system, and more than two million in its community college empire.

Coloradans wondering why their state has veered so sharply to the left should consider the growth of Colorado public universities. The campuses of the University of Colorado now enroll over 67,000 students and employ 8,000 faculty. Colorado State University adds another 33,000 students and nearly 2,000 faculty. All those folks have family members and/or patronize local businesses and organizations. Is it any wonder that those communities vote overwhelmingly Left?

If a “progressive” candidate can garner sufficient votes, by fair means or foul, from urban areas, state capitals, and university towns, then he or she can eke out a small statewide majority irrespective of what people in the rest of the state think.

You can see the effects of this strategy by examining election returns in many states. Oregon may serve as an illustration.

Oregon has a long tradition of moderate Republicanism. Indeed, most areas of the state remain Republican. But Oregon Republicans have not elected a governor in more than three decades!

The 2018 election demonstrates why. That year, the Democratic nominee was Kate Brown, whose fringe views are antithetical to those held by much of the Oregon electorate. Even with the advantage of incumbency, she carried just seven Oregon counties—fewer than a fifth of the state’s 36.

But her seven counties included Portland, the largest city, and many of Portland’s suburbs; Corvallis, the seat of Oregon State University; and Eugene, the location of the University of Oregon. She did not carry Marion County, which contains the state capital of Salem. But she reduced her Marion County losses by taking nearly 64 percent of mail-in ballots. Totals from these concentrated left-wing areas enabled Brown to eke out 50.1 percent of the vote.

NPV would enable “progressive” candidates to play the same game on the national level—but even more effectively. At the state level, the two major parties are held together by the presidential election mechanism: each party must unite if it hopes to win an absolute majority in the Electoral College.

NPV would change that by awarding a majority in the Electoral College to whomever won a bare plurality of the reported national vote, even if some of the reported totals were corrupt. Presidential elections would fracture into multi-candidate affairs; less than 40 percent of the popular vote could assure victory. As I have explained before, that is precisely what happens in nations that elect presidents by a bare plurality.

The big city/state capital/university tripod cannot always provide a majority, but it usually can create a plurality. That means left wing candidates will win almost every presidential election, if only they unite at the critical time, as they did this year when Bernie Sanders and other Democratic contestants all endorsed Joe Biden. In view of the amount of government booty involved, we can expect that even if they fight among themselves initially, they almost always will unite in time to create the plurality they need to win the presidency.

Surely the NPV promoters know this.

Rob Natelson understands elections: During the 1990s, he led and won three Montana statewide ballot issue elections; in 2000 he ran second-of-five in that state’s bipartisan gubernatorial primary. A former constitutional law professor, he is the Independence Institute’s Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence.

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