Changing the Electoral Process: A Conversation With State Sen. Rebekah Warren

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 6:49pm

More than 50 million Americans cast ballots in the 2000 presidential election, and by a margin of 543,895 votes, Democrat Al Gore emerged victorious in the popular vote contest. But it didn’t matter. Gore’s half-million-vote advantage meant nothing in the Electoral College, where Republican George W. Bush prevailed, 271 to 266, winning the first of his two terms as president.

The 2000 election, to many voters, seemed convoluted and indirect. Instead of simply awarding the election to the candidate with the most votes, the 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded their electoral delegates to the candidate with the most votes in their individual elections. Despite Gore’s clear overall national advantage, the election ended up depending on the outcome of Bush v. Gore, a case centering on a recount that would have decided who won Florida’s 25 electoral votes. The official tally maintains that Bush won the state, and the presidency with it, by a miniscule 537 votes.

The result reawakened a national frustration surrounding the presidential election process. Among those most frustrated was Michigan state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) — currently among the sponsors of a piece of legislation that would ensure a popular-vote winner won’t ever lose a presidential election again.

“2000 brought to mind for a lot of folks that this could happen, and that it could happen more frequently,” Warren said. The Electoral College, Warren said, has “outlived its usefulness,” and elections like 2000’s make many in non-swing states feel their vote for president is inconsequential.

So what’s the solution? In Warren’s world, it’s a piece of legislation currently referred to as Michigan Senate Bill 88: “A bill to enter into the interstate compact to elect the president by national popular vote.”

Warren has taken the lead on the bill in Michigan, and equivalent legislation has already been enacted in Hawaii, California, Washington, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and the District of Columbia — each proposing a fundamental change to the way the jurisdictions award their electoral delegates. Instead of awarding votes based on which candidate wins the state’s popular vote, the states would award their electoral delegates to the winner of the national popular vote, effectively rendering the Electoral College useless.

The catch, of course, is that each of the already passed legislative actions only takes effect when 270 electoral votes’ worth of states, the amount required to win an election, have signed on to what’s now called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Those 11 state jurisdictions account for 165, and Michigan’s 16 electoral votes would push the total to 181, more than two-thirds of the amount required to win a presidential election.

“The underpinning of our democracy is the idea: one person, one vote,” Warren said. “What you’ve seen these last few cycles with some battleground presidential elections is that those swing states are the ones with a lot of Electoral College votes, and they get most of the visits by presidential candidates. It means people like us in Michigan, which is sometimes considered a spectator state in presidential elections, don’t get the same kind of attention.”

Michigan tends to have a dramatic Democratic tilt every four years — no Republican presidential candidate has won the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988, meaning it doesn’t get as much attention from campaigns, despite many Republicans in statewide office. But Warren said the problem is far wider than the presidential campaigns themselves, and that candidates’ lack of attention for certain states during the campaign translates to a similar lack of attention once they’re elected.

“When those folks get into office, we see those states get more federal grant money,” Warren said.

She added that Electoral College has left many voters feeling disenchanted with the democratic process, which Warren said poses risks to voter turnout and overall civic engagement.

“I’ve worked a lot in my career on efforts to increase access to the ballot, and I truly believe in a nonpartisan way that democracy works best when more people vote,” Warren said. “What I hear from too many folks is that the Electoral College system makes people feel like their vote for president doesn’t count. How do you get people to be invested and educated in their vote when they feel like it doesn’t mean very much?”

The conservative opposition to Warren’s bill takes a different tune. Some opponents of the bill, currently sitting in the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee, say it would take away voting power from smaller states and rural areas that currently feel they have a voice in contested presidential elections — a voice that would be diminished within the grand scheme of a popular vote for president.

Michigan state Sen. Dave Robertson (R–Grand Blanc) chairs the committee. Though his office did not respond to The Michigan Daily’s requests for comment, Robertson is on record saying the panel is willing to debate the issues, but does not expect changes in the near future — especially for the 2016 election cycle.

Another topic of concern is whether states themselves should have the power to change the election process on a federal level. The more direct approach would simply be to amend the United States Constitution, instead of relying on a web of state-level legislation to enact nationwide change.

“I think it’s like a lot of social change — things like civil rights and women’s rights movements — it starts at the state level and percolates up,” Warren said. “I would agree that the front-door approach makes a lot of sense. But this is what I can do to try to make a difference. I have to start here. That said, I certainly have encouraged members of our congressional delegation to take this forward to Congress.”

The bill’s supporters say the priority should be preventing 2000, and less recent history, from repeating itself.

Bush’s election was the third time in American history that a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but won presidential elections anyway. Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by a margin of 250,000 in 1876, but became president anyway. Benjamin Harrison fell 90,000 votes short in 1888, but ran away with a 233-168 win in the Electoral College.

The effort to prevent a popular-vote winner losing for a fourth time is being spearheaded almost entirely by liberal politicians who ideologically tend to be less concerned over states’ rights. Now that the Compact has picked up the lowest-hanging fruit — the 10 states to have passed it are arguably the country’s 10 most politically liberal — its next challenge is in picking up votes from more moderate states, some of which have already seen popular-vote legislation introduced.

Among them are Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania — all solidly blue states good for another 46 combined electoral votes, which would push the measure ever closer to having legal force. A version of Senate Bill 88 passed the Michigan House of Representatives in 2008, but the current 27-11 Republican advantage in the state Senate means the bill’s odds of advancing out of committee, much less being successfully brought to vote, likely rest on the Democrats retaking the chamber at some point in the future. At that point it would likely have to be reintroduced because a new legislative session will have started.

“My goal is obviously to encourage the chairman to have another hearing and another vote,” Warren said. “It would be great to have it pass not only one chamber but to actually pass. Many other jurisdictions — 11 now — have actually passed it, and we’re getting closer.”

The four presidential candidates still in the mix for 2016 will spend the year’s remaining months on a quest for 270 electoral votes. But if Warren and the rest of the largely unknown movement get their way, candidates in future elections will be competing for something different: the vote of the American people. Nothing more and nothing less.