NPV in the last frontier

2011/03/18
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Lobbyists claim Alaskans have nothing to lose

Last week I visited Juneau to talk with state legislators about National Popular Vote. NPV’s anti-Electoral College legislation (SB 39) has moved through two of their Senate committees in as many months. Because NPV says different things to different people, it’s always fascinating to pick up the echoes of their latest sales pitch. This was particularly true in Alaska.

NPV’s slogan is “every voter equal.” The claim is preposterous: their plan would shift more power to political consultants and pollsters to decide which voters to focus on and who to ignore. Nevertheless, NPV tries to convince legislators that their state’s voters will get more attention if NPV succeeds.

In the remote state of Alaska, NPV’s pitch is, essentially, how can you lose? Presidential candidates don’t visit now; maybe with NPV they’d at least send the vice presidential nominee’s spouse or something…. The first problem with this is, under any electoral system, Alaska really is remote. And it’s vast area is home to only 710,321 people. That’s less than half the population of Manhattan (consider that only 27 people would live in Manhattan if it had the same population density as Alaska).

While no presidential election process is going to put Alaska at the forefront of the campaign plan, the state very nearly became a focus in 2008–because of the Electoral College. Until the nomination of Sarah Palin, Barack Obama’s campaign believed it had a chance to win in Alaska. And then, having your governor nominated for vice president is hardly being ignored….

As I’ve pointed out on this blog before, the “swing state” effect of the Electoral College is actually a good thing for several reasons. And again, by wiping away state lines NPV only changes who gets attention, it doesn’t mean presidential campaigns will suddenly become omnipresent.

All this, however, is something of a sideshow. What really matters about any political process is whether it works. To know that, you need an idea of what government is for. NPV’s arguments imply that government exists to hold majoritarian elections after everyone watches the same number of campaign commercials. But perhaps government exists for some other reason, say, to protect individual rights. If that’s true, then things like stability, moderation, and sustainability begin to matter a lot more than where candidates hold campaign rallies.

NPV has catchy catch phrases. They whisper to Republicans that their plan will help Republicans, then whisper to Democrats that NPV will consolidate more power in urban areas. But in the end, what is certain is that NPV would radically alter the incentives in American politics and have cascading unintended consequences. As one Democratic legislator in Alaska told me: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And the Electoral College ain’t broke.”

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