National Popular Vote & Alvin Greene

It looks like Republican state senator/LG candidate Richard Tisei has delayed passage of the "national popular vote" bill until next week, but it seems certain to pass soon, after passing the Massachusetts House last week.

I'm not a huge fan of the legislation, and I thought I'd explain why -- in hopes that some advocates can try to set me straight.

The idea of the bill is to get rid of the anachronistic electoral college system, under which it is possible to elect a President who received fewer votes than another candidate. (And under which only a small number of "swing states" get any attention from candidates.) I agree with the premise, and would like to see a Constitutional Amendment to replace the system. But, with that prospect unlikely, voting reformers have the clever idea to get states like Massachusetts to pledge, by statute, to declare the top national vote-getter the "winner" of their state's electoral votes. If enough states do this -- representing a majority of electoral college votes -- that will guarantee that the popular-vote winner is also the electoral-college winner. (The legislation only kicks in if and when this baseline of states have adopted the plan.)

Clever. And a number of potential problems have been addressed through tweaks in the statutes. But I have a two-part concern.

It seems to me that the current system, for all its flaws, has resulted in remarkably orderly and uncontroversial elections -- in large part because individual precincts, counties, and states end up not mattering.

This may seem counterintuitive, since the electoral-college system clearlyseems to make some places "matter" more than others. But in practice, modern Presidential elections almost never provide us with a state vote close enough to be called into question, in an election close enough for that state's result to tip the election.

In fact, it has happened just once: Florida, 2000. And that was a freaking fiasco.

Think about it: in 2008, John McCain won Missouri's 11 electors by roughly 4000 votes, out of nearly three million cast -- barely one-tenth of one percent -- and there was no team of lawyers and protesters swooping down on the state, and a long delay in starting the Presidential transition, because Obama had enough electoral votes with or without Missouri.

And in 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon by one-tenth of one percent in the popular vote nationally, his margin of victory in the electoral college was large enough that potentially controversial situations -- California, for instance, switched from Kennedy to Nixon once the absentee votes were counted -- didn't end up bogging down the transition.

But if we end up with a de facto national popular Presidential vote, as a result of state laws like the one Massachusetts is adopting, then a close election -- hardly unlikely, given that we've had two within half a percentage point out of the last 13 -- well, all precincts are equal. The entire country becomes Florida 2000. Partisans will be looking to challenge everything, everywhere: provisional ballots, counting mechanisms, absentee ballots, chain-of-custody, etc. etc.... 

And here's the dirty little secret of American elections: they really don't work as well as people think. Personally, I think they work awfully well considering the enormity of the task. But honestly, when you look at them up close, they don't look so pretty -- as we all saw in Florida 2000. So, a close election would inevitably turn up hundreds, maybe thousands, of anomalies and challenges and accusations and questions.

I am reminded of this by a news item this afternoon, about Tuesday's bizarre South Carolina Democratic US Senate primary, which was won by a guy absolutely nobody had ever heard of. The losing campaign's manager is looking into the results, to try to figure out what happened. Politico reports that he has found a number of possible anomolies, including this: 


In Spartanburg County, Ludwig said there are 25 precincts in which Greene received more votes than were actually cast and 50 other precincts where votes appeared to be missing from the final count.


“In only two of 88 precincts, do the number of votes Greene got plus the number we got equal the total cast,” Ludwig said.

This might end up being a clerical error, or any number of things. Who knows? You're talking about a state with something like 46 counties, each with dozens of precincts. Things happen.

Things happen. And, if it might matter to the end result, officials sort those things out -- occasionally with courts getting involved -- and do their best to get to an actual correct set of numbers. But it's kind of a mess, and it's a horror story to imagine this happening throughout the country while we wait to find out who the next President is.

And that brings me to the second part of my objection: without a Constitutional amendment laying out a national system for handling this, what are the rules? Who is the authority?

For example: let's say the national popular vote appears to be within 0.2% -- wouldn't we want some sort of recount to be sure? But if, say, Texas is not one of the 'popular vote' adopters, and its results have a clear winner, it would have no reason to conduct a recount. Massachusetts can't make them. What if 

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