SHEPHERDSTOWN – A policy debate on Monday about replacing the electoral college with a popular vote for presidential elections was met with low turnout, but that didn’t prevent a vigorous exchange on the topic.
The National Popular Vote Act, which has already passed in eight states and the District of Columbia and will once again come before the West Virginia Legislature in the January legislative session. The bill, which aims to force the popular election of the president, functions as an interstate compact, remaining dormant until a sufficient number of states adopt it. Once states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes – the number needed to decide a presidential election – have signed the compact into law, the Act would go into effect, forcing each of those states’ electoral college members to cast their votes for the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. The act bypasses requiring a constitutional amendment to change how presidents are selected.
The Robert Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University hosted the debate on the act Monday night between Delegate John Doyle, who opposes the measure, and Patrick Rosenstiel, a senior consultant with the group advocating for the bill.
Rosenstiel opened the debate with a look at the origins of the current “winner-take-all” electoral system, where a candidate who captures the majority of the state’s popular vote gets all of its electoral votes. He said the system became popular after John Adams won election in 1796 by capturing a few southern electors and became universal in the years preceding the Civil War.
West Virginia has chosen to emulate other most states who use a winner-take-all rule, but that rule was created by the state Legislature, and it could be changed by the Legislature, Rosenstiel said, adding the system has had negative consequences for American politics and policy.
“It’s led to a system where it’s all ‘battleground states’ versus ‘flyover states,’” Rosenstiel said, adding that four out of five Americans currently reside in flyover states which lean so reliably to one political party that they are largely ignored in campaigns and that voter turnout is therefore between 6 and 9 percent lower in those states.
“You had 73 presidential events in the state of Ohio in the last six weeks of the campaign,” he said. “You had 36 in Virginia. That is 109 events by candidates for president or vice president of both major parties in neighboring states. How many did you have here? Zero.”
The lavish attention paid to battleground states does not stop with political campaigns, Rosenstiel said. “Presidents govern to the needs and concerns of citizens in battleground states, not to citizens of flyover America.”
As examples, Rosenstiel, a former campaign advisor for Republican candidates George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, pointed to the Medicare prescription drug plan passed under the Bush Administration as pandering to a group of seniors in Florida and the maintenance of steel tariffs, also under the Bush Administration, as pandering to steelworkers in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He also pointed to Obama’s auto bailout, and to the fact that battleground states consistently get more disaster relief funding.
Doyle said he opposed the plan on both practical and philosophical grounds.
Doyle said the proper way to institute a national popular vote would be to advocate and pass a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College, rather than “doing an end run” around the constitutionally created body.
“If we are going to do that, we need to have our eyes open and be fully informed of both the positive and negative consequences,” Doyle said. “What we will have done is to make the electoral college a facade, and therefore the power of the states to determine how they award electors will be a facade.”
Doyle said moving to a popular vote could have negative practical consequences for a small state like West Virginia.
“It was true that West Virginia was a flyover state in this election,” he said. “In 2000 and in 2004, West Virginia was not a flyover state. Both Al Gore and John Kerry battled hard for West Virginia’s electoral votes.
“If [the electoral college was abolished] West Virginia would always be a flyover state. It is too small and too rural to attract the personal attention of a presidential candidate, a vice presidential candidate, or either of their spouses.”
The National Popular Vote Act has been introduced in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature and has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, but has not moved any farther than that. Doyle said there was considerable opposition to the bill in the Capitol.