A main argument by advocates for the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) is that the Electoral College distorts policy decisions made in the White House. According to this theory, incumbent presidents cater to the interests of “swing state” voters in order to bolster their re-election prospects, to the detriment of the general public.
Unlike an awful lot of the arguments made for NPV, this one actually has a bit of truth to it, although that molehill of truth becomes a mountain of mythical proportions in NPV’s telling. As I explained in a Hill op-ed in May, if a president was crafty enough to push through a Medicare prescription drug program just to win over elderly voters in Florida, wouldn’t he also figure out that the same program would win elderly voters nationwide? (And for the record, there’s no real evidence I’m aware of that this was the motivation behind the Bush Administration’s Medicare prescription drug program, but NPV lobbyists routinely make this claim).
More recently, NPV’s lobbyists have taken to bashing a decision by President Trump to include Maine’s lobster industry in the Commodity Credit Corporation’s (CCC) program to support agricultural producers harmed by tariffs. The program was launched in the summer of 2018, largely in response to retaliatory tariffs that China placed on U.S. agricultural exports. The lobster industry was not initially eligible for the program even though lobster exports were among the first to be hit by China’s high tariffs, and the industry has suffered severely as a result.
In late June of this year, the Trump Administration modified its CCC policy to make the Maine lobster industry eligible for relief. There seems to be widespread support for the decision, and both of Maine’s U.S. Senators (one an Independent, the other a Republican) plus one of the state’s two Democratic members of the House of Representatives issued a joint statement praising the new policy.
So who’s not happy with lobstermen getting the same aid as much of the rest of the agriculture industry? Apparently, NPV’s lobbyists.
In a recent online debate sponsored by the R Street Institute, NPV lobbyist Pat Rosenstiel was complaining mightily about the “corruption” of presidential policymaking caused by the Electoral College, and made the following comments (video here, Rosenstiel’s comments come at about the 29 minute mark):
Just last week the president himself was talking about protecting Maine’s lobster fishermen, because the Second Congressional District is a competitive area of the battleground state map currently. That is not a substitute for sort of the very real interests of voters in North Dakota and Alaska and South Dakota. There aren’t a lot of lobster fishermen in most of the small states.
It should be noted that there’s no evidence I’ve seen that the Trump administration’s decision to make Maine’s lobster fishermen eligible for the CCC program was motivated by the Electoral College. But let’s assume for the moment that Rosenstiel’s charge is accurate – isn’t it a strength of our system that candidates for president can’t easily ignore all but the largest voting blocks in the country? That, after all, was one of the reasons the Electoral College was adopted, to ensure that the interests of the most populous states wouldn’t be the only ones that mattered.
So instead of simply focusing on the needs and wishes of voters in big metropolitan areas or the largest national factions, as would happen under NPV, successful candidates for president need to keep in mind the interests of dairy farmers in Wisconsin, factory workers in Pennsylvania, nurses in North Carolina, ranchers in Nevada, and yes, lobster fishermen in Maine. And while Rosenstiel is surely right that there aren’t many lobstermen outside of Maine, there certainly are a lot of diary farmers outside of Wisconsin (though still only about 40,000 in the country, not enough to merit any attention under NPV), and the same goes for the other mentioned groups and countless others as well.
Under NPV, presidential campaigns would only focus on large, powerful groups with millions or even tens of millions of Americans that can be appealed to – union members, college students, or suburbanites. Indeed, those groups get plenty of attention in the current system, because they are found in the most competitive states as well as so-called safe states.
But the Electoral College forces presidential campaigns to pay attention to small groups as well, like the 5,000 or so struggling Maine lobster fishermen. Is this crass politics? Perhaps, but it will exist under NPV or the current Electoral College. The question should be, do we want presidential politics that caters only to the largest voting blocks or do we want to ensure that a wider range of Americans are heard from and have their needs taken into consideration?
While NPV’s message to Maine’s lobstering community might be summed up as “Drop Dead” (to borrow from the New York Post headline of October 30, 1975 describing President Gerald Ford’s rejection of a bailout for New York City), the Electoral College may be what is giving Maine lobstermen a chance to at least catch President Trump’s attention and not be completely marginalized the way they would be under NPV. That seems like a strength rather than a weakness of the Electoral College.