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Tacoma: The 101st City

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One concern often expressed about the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) is that voters from large metropolitan areas would dominate a direct presidential election while rural Americans would be ignored. The concern does seem to be a bit more on the minds of Republicans than Democrats, which is understandable given where each party tends to draw its base from, but there are plenty of Democrats who share this concern.

Advocates for NPV have long struggled to address this issue, but they do have something of a stock answer. Here’s what currently appears on the National Popular Vote organization’s website:

Many people think that the big cities of the United States are bigger than they are, or that the rural areas of the country are smaller than they are.

The 100 biggest cities in the United States have, according to the 2010 census, 59,849,899 people (19.32% of the U.S. population of 308,745,538).

This number is almost identical to the rural population of the United States, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, of 59,492,267 people (19.27% of the U.S. population).

As one NPV lobbyist has argued to Republicans trying to persuade them to support it, an election held under NPV would be fought in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas where there are more “swing” voters and Republicans can compete and win (I’m paraphrasing, hopefully fairly).

A few things.

First, NPV’s advocates want to talk only about “big cities,” they ignore concerns about large metropolitan areas (typically clusters of several cities). The three largest metropolitan areas in the United States are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with a combined 42 million people. The combined population of just those metropolitan areas with half a million or more people is about 223 million. Comparing that to the rural population of 59.5 million presents a less balanced picture than NPV lobbyists want to paint.

Second, the NPV lobbyist is almost certainly correct that the suburbs would be where candidates focus a lot of attention. And of course, the cities that form the core of the metropolitan area would also receive a massive amount of attention, because there are tens of millions of votes in those cities for both parties (Donald Trump received approximately 690,000 votes in New York City and 1,450,000 out of Los Angeles County, for example).

But all this still leaves rural voters out in the cold. Who is going to travel to visit Levant, Maine (population around 3,000, a few miles northwest of Bangor, population 32,000) when the Boston metropolitan area with close to five million people offers so many more votes, and where advertising, policy issues, and turnout operations can all be leveraged with candidate visits?

Third, it is curiously arbitrary that NPV includes only the top 100 cities in its calculation of America’s urban population. I have never heard an NPV opponent express a concern that “the 100 most populous cities in America would control the election” or similar. Is Tacoma, Washington, with about 218,000 people and ranked as the 101st largest city in America in one list, not a city in NPV’s view? I’m quite certain it is in the minds of those who express concern about rural America being left behind under NPV.

NPV’s definition of what counts as America’s urban population also ignores what the US Census Bureau explains on its website:

Urban areas make up only 3 percent of the entire land area of the country but are home to more than 80 percent of the population. Conversely, 97 percent of the country’s land mass is rural but only 19.3 percent of the population lives there.

Fourth, NPV’s calculation implies that Tacoma is part of that middle between Republican-leaning rural voters and Democratic-leaning urban voters, filled with the “swing” voters where Republicans are going to be able to compete for votes. A look at the data suggests…. maybe not.

Tacoma is part of Pierce County, and according to data on the county auditor’s website, the precincts that make up the city (about 105 of the county’s 555 precincts) delivered an overwhelming win for President Biden, roughly 101,000 votes to Trump’s nearly 70,000 votes. In fact, Trump only won a single precinct, while Biden received more than sixty percent of the vote in 96 of the remaining 104 precincts.

To summarize: The concern is about big metropolitan areas dominating under NPV, not just “cities”; making suburbs the battlegrounds under the compact still means ignoring rural America; there are more than 100 cities in America and a lot more Americans that live in urban areas than rural areas; and moving from the 100th to the 101st city doesn’t dramatically increase Republican competitiveness (nor would going from the largest rural community to the smallest non-rural community do a whole lot for Democrats, I suspect).

There may be a persuasive that addresses people’s concerns, particularly those of Republican state legislators, that rural Americans would be almost entirely ignored under NPV. What’s being offered now by NPV falls substantially short.