Nevada’s about to commit political suicide — is the Electoral College doomed?
Last week, 12 members of the Nevada state Senate voted to commit political suicide for their state and step the nation closer to an electoral transformation. They did it along partisan lines and with almost no one watching. If Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signs the legislation, making Nevada a signatory to the National Popular Vote compact, the state will have resigned itself into presidential oblivion.
Just a few years ago, not many would have thought that a scheme to amend the Constitution without actually amending the Constitution, cooked up by the inventor of rub-off instant lottery ticket technology, would be taken seriously. Now it has passed into law in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Here’s how the National Popular Vote plan is designed to work: Rather than go through Article V of the Constitution to amend the document itself, it would use an agreement between the states to give their electoral vote to the national popular vote winner, no matter how their own citizens vote. The compact is set to become operable when states accounting for a majority of the Electoral College votes (270 of 538) pass the compact. When Nevada enters the compact, supporters will be within 75 electoral votes of fundamentally transforming the American political order.
The plan will profoundly change our electoral system, by changing the incentives of our candidates. Those changes demand a serious national debate — but for now, let’s focus on what the Nevada Senate has just done to its own state and the people the Senate represents.
Nevada has been a fairly reliably competitive state in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has voted with the winner of the presidency more than 85 percent of the time since 1900. Since FDR’s first election, Democrats have won Nevada in 12 presidential elections and Republican candidates won it in 10. President Bush won it twice, but so did Barack Obama. Though the state has been moving more reliably Democratic, it has been a state that can often command the attention of candidates.
Never again. If the Democratic state leaders in Nevada get their way and the National Popular Vote compact becomes operable, the state will never again be important to a presidential candidate.
Let’s look at the numbers.
With the current Electoral College system, a close presidential election could hinge on Nevada’s six electoral votes. This gives the state some clout, which means its interests can gain some attention. If the state just gives away its six electors to whomever wins the national popular vote, Nevada will no longer have enough marginal votes to make it worth a candidate’s attention.
In competitive elections like 2016 and 2004, for instance, the candidates in Nevada were separated by less than 30,000 votes. Even in the blowout year of 2008 Obama only received roughly 120,000 votes more than John McCain — a margin few candidates will actually be able to hope to improve upon.
Compare those numbers with the margin Hillary Clinton racked up over Donald Trump in just one county in California; in Los Angeles County alone she received more than 1.6 million more votes than Donald Trump, and that was without even trying! All incentives for candidates to seek votes in Nevada will be eliminated if the Electoral College system is changed through the NPV plan.
The election in Nevada in 2016, in fact, is a good microcosm of what will happen to Nevada and other small and rural states if he NPV compact succeeds. Clinton did not win Nevada by traveling the state and appealing to a wide swath of the population. She won Nevada by winning a massive majority in just one county (and a slight plurality in one other). Where Clinton won the whole state by just 27,000 votes, she won more than 82,000 votes more than Trump simply in the county containing Las Vegas, and thereby won the state.
If those supporting the National Popular Vote initiative succeed, they will make all small and rural states like Nevada irrelevant in our national presidential conversation. In making these voters irrelevant, they also will be radicalizing our politics by centering ever more power in major urban centers, which already contribute most of the money fueling our campaigns and the media reporting on them.
And all this is happening within state legislatures without a serious national conversation that an actual amendment to the Constitution would demand — one that which our republic deserves.
Gary L. Gregg is editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College” and holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville.