Traveling around the country defending federalism and the Electoral College, I have heard an amazing array of different--sometimes contradictory--claims made by National Popular Vote (NPV) advocates. Some of this is reasonable, since different NPV backers have different complaints about the current system and very different explanations of how NPV would work. Other contradictions appear more calculated.
Examining the claims and breaking down some outright NPV myths is the topic of this post. (NPV's website contains a "Answering Myths" page--we will test some of these as well, though most are mere strawmen and attempts at distraction.)
NPV Myth #1: "What long-term effects?"
The first myth perpetuated by NPV proponents, this mostly by implication, is that wiping away state lines in presidential elections will not change the rest of American politics. This is NPV's most dangerous myth, although probably an unintended one.
NPV inventor John Koza is a computer scientist, after all. He is clearly brilliant--in his field. But that is no substitute for the real study and contemplation of politics, law, and history. While Koza can explain very well the math and mechanisms of NPV, he appears never to have considered how it might interact with actual human beings let alone the turbulent and often tenebrous waters of American politics.
Consider Koza's first foray into politics: pushing state governments to create lotteries using his patented scratch ticket. Koza certainly did the math--he made a fortune and states gained new revenues. But did he ever even consider the social cost?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,
[s]tate lotteries posted more than $53 billion in ticket sales in 2006 (the last year for which data are available). The states' take from that amount was a little less than a third of the total—around $17 billion.
So lottery participants, including buyers of Koza's scratch tickets, spent $53 billion so that states could gain $17 billion in new revenues. And lottery ticket buyers are more likely to be poor, even as these same state revenues often flow to the middle and even upper classes. The math just doesn't tell the whole story: Koza's scratch ticket lotteries prey on the false hopes, fatalism, and poor education of society's most vulnerable--and on state governments' never-ending quests for more revenue.
The social costs of NPV could be even worse. It might take decades, but NPV's proposed alteration of the incentives that govern national politics would eventually reshape the American political landscape. The kind of structural change that NPV proposes--wiping away state lines in presidential elections--would present campaign strategists and political parties with new and different parameters and would thus produce different outcomes (and it would not make "every voter equal"--NPV's most attractive and preposterous claim--in any practical or tangible way).
I believe the outcomes of NPV would tend toward less moderate, less national, and less stable politics. But these are topics for another post. The point here is that NPV doesn't even ask let alone answer these questions--the big questions about how this process of government interacts with those things that are in fact the very purposes of government.