New York State Joins Popular Vote Compact

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Governor Andrew Cuomo last week signed into law a bill that enters New York into a multi-state compact that, if approved by enough states, could radically change future presidential elections.

By enacting this law, New York joined nine other states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote Compact, in which each agrees to give its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote—provided enough states join the compact to account for the 270 electoral votes necessary to decide the presidency.

Currently, New York’s 29 electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote among its own citizens and not necessarily to the candidate who receives the most votes in the nation.

To date, New York joins California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington in the compact, accounting for 165 electoral votes—about 61 percent of the necessary 270 votes that are needed to win the presidency.

While this effort has gone relatively unheralded, it is a cause that State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor has championed for years, first introducing legislation on it at the state level about five years ago. Although previous attempts failed to make it through both legislative houses, the most recent bill, which Mr. Thiele co-sponsored, made it from the Senate Elections Committee to the governor’s desk in less than three months.

“Having been involved in a lot of discussions in getting people to support this and leaders to come around to it, I’m very happy that it finally made it through both houses and the governor signed it,” Mr. Thiele said on Friday afternoon.

Although George W. Bush is the only president to win a presidential election despite failing to secure a majority of the popular vote in his race against Al Gore in 2000, advocates of the compact argue that basing the election on an overall popular vote will force presidential candidates to put forth greater campaign efforts in non-swing states, such as New York and California, which have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates.

“The fact is that New York’s issues don’t seem to get the level of attention that they should, because New York is not a swing state,” Mr. Thiele said. “Presidential candidates don’t come here during elections, except to raise money, and they don’t build platforms off needs in New York.

“You’re more likely to see an ethanol bill because Iowa is a corn state and a swing state,” he continued.

The push for a national popular vote has been spearheaded by California-based non-profit National Popular Vote since 2006, with Maryland being the first state to enact a law in 2007.

Patrick Rosenstiel, a spokesman for National Popular Vote, said if the compact gets enough votes to go into effect, it would give every voter an equal voice and would force presidential campaigns to spread the wealth among more states, rather than spending “two-thirds of the political resources in just four states—Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa” during election season. Those are traditionally considered swing states, in that they cannot be counted on to vote for Democrats or Republicans.

“Four out of five voters in this country are relegated to spectators when it comes to choosing the leader of the free world, and that’s a problem,” Mr. Rosenstiel said when reached on Monday.

Eleven other states have pending legislation to join the compact that has passed at least one legislative house. They include Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Maine and Michigan. But even if all 11 states passed legislation, the cause still would 20 electoral votes shy of the necessary 270.

Mr. Rosenstiel declined to say which state would be the most likely to pass a law like this next, but both he and Mr. Thiele pointed to Texas, a consistently red state in presidential elections, as one that would benefit from the compact. Texas has legislation on the compact pending, but it has not been taken up by a legislative committee, according to the National Popular Vote website.

Professor Jeffrey Segal, chair of the political science department at Stony Brook University, said that while such a change would be radical, it is constitutionally legal as states are both allowed to create compacts with one another and distribute their electoral votes any way they see fit.

The compact, which so far has been agreed to only by consistently blue states, would take away some of the powers provided to less populated states by the electoral college; each state is given at least three votes regardless of population. This could explain why the bill has not caught on in as many Republican states, Mr. Segal said.

Overall, he said, while a popular vote system would benefit New York, he does not see the compact gaining enough support to go into effect “unless we get a couple more elections where the plurality vote winner fails to get enough electoral college votes to win.”

Mr. Thiele, meanwhile, acknowledged that it would be too optimistic to have such a change in place by the next presidential election in 2016, though he is hopeful that it could be rolled out by 2020.

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