National popular vote would not diminish politics in presidential decisions

National popular vote would not diminish politics in presidential decisions
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Critics of the Electoral College claim it distorts federal spending and other policy decisions. These critics include lobbyists for the National Popular Vote (NPV) campaign, which supports an interstate compact that would manipulate the Electoral College to produce a direct election for president.

There are two claims here to consider. First, that the Electoral College causes political distortions in federal policymaking. Second, that a popular vote system would eliminate these distortions, a basic understanding of American politics exposes these claims as hopelessly naïve.

Consider a charge made for years by NPV lobbyists: that the Medicare Part D prescription drug program exists only because the Bush White House was desperate to win Florida in its 2004 re-election campaign. 

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Medicare Part D may have raised Bush’s favorability among older voters, thus helping him win Florida’s 27 electoral votes. It’s even possible — although there’s no evidence for it — that a desire to win Florida motivated the Bush administration to support a Medicare prescription drug plan. 

Even if that were the case, there is no reason to believe the same thing would not have happened with a popular vote. Surely a Bush administration crafty enough to develop Medicare Part D to win votes among Florida’s seniors would also have understood that it would win votes nationally among seniors, who are a massive voting block with the highest turnout rate.

Picking a little more on Florida, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele claimed in a recent op-ed in The Hill that “presidential attention also benefits the Sunshine State during hurricane season. According to Politico, Florida is still attempting to catch up and spend some $900 million in aid received after hurricanes Hermine, Matthew, and Irma caused massive damage in 2016 and 2017.”

His implication that this $900 million was largesse lavished on the Sunshine State given because of its status as a “swing state,” and the state cannot figure out how to spend all of the money, is nonsense, as the article Steele cites demonstrates. 

As it explains, Florida “is caught in the bureaucratic knot that governs disaster relief funds administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” which is compounded by the state’s process that “has left much of the tricky application process to counties with no experience and few resources.”

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The article goes on to note that “With disaster aid sitting unused, thousands of people are living in temporary housing. Schools and police departments are closing, fire halls are clinging to life.” This does not sound like Floridians wallowing in filthy lucre doled out by an Oval Office playing Electoral College politics, which is how Steele presents it.

His claims get even stranger when he ties steel tariffs imposed by the Obama administration in 2015 to a desire to deliver several “key electoral states” to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff MORE, including Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (widely thought to be part of the Democrats “Blue Wall” safely and therefore not in need of special treatment from the White House) and the traditional “swing state” of… Texas. Steele also suggests President Donald “Tariff Man” Trump is apparently setting aside deeply held free-trade principles by continuing the tariffs as part of his Electoral College strategy.

Even if such arguments hold some truth, it ignores the similar political incentives that would exist with a direct popular vote. An incumbent president would still look for voting blocks — from “NASCAR Dads” and “Soccer Moms” to, yes, steelworkers and retiree — and shape policy to boost support among key groups regardless of whether it is good for the nation. 

Ultimately, it is not the Electoral College that causes “the politics and political posturing” in “presidential decision making,” as Steel characterizes it. It is the nature of politics itself. That will not change whether our nation maintains the current system, embraces National Popular Vote, or veers off in some other direction.

Sean Parnell is a public policy consultant and the senior legislative director for Save Our States, which defends the Electoral College.