During a fundraiser for FairVote Rhode Island at the Hi-Hat on Monday, supporters of the concept known as National Popular Vote several times used the acronym NPV with a wink and a smile, eliciting the question from a colleague, "What's NPV?," and then offering the all-too obvious answer.
Yet while NPV truly remains obscure to most Americans, supporters hope that its underlying principle — replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote in presidential elections — will help to make it a reality. Four states (Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland, and New Jersey) have already embraced NPV, and FairVote RI activists hope to gain enough legislative support to override a veto of related legislation by Governor Carcieri.
During the Monday evening fundraiser, New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg, a one-time speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, described the Electoral College approach as highly flawed, since it divides the 50 states into "battlegrounds" and "spectators" during presidential elections. As it stands, a large part of the country doesn't really count in presidential elections, attracting few or no visits from the candidates, he says.
What's more, Hertzberg says, James Madison and some other architects of America's system of government favored using popular vote for electing presidents. "What we have now nearly has nothing to do with the wisdom of the Founding Fathers," he says, adding that the Constitution's creators would love NPV.
Likening the drive for NPV to how a relatively small group helped to spark the American Revolution, Hertzberg expressed optimism about the outlook for success and predicted that the popular voting concept would bring fresh bipartisan energy to presidential elections. He contends it would also level the overwhelming influence of money in elections, since a far greater number of states would be in play than is currently the case.
Democrats tend to be more supportive of NPV, Hertzberg noted, but he says Republicans should embrace it as something that wouldn't have a partisan effect and which "will trickle down to every level of government."
Hertzberg came to public attention while working for Carter, whose 1976 victory was largely a reaction to the Watergate scandal — famously exposed by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — which engulfed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon
More than 30 years later, the newspaper industry is falling apart with increasing speed, and Hertzberg agreed that this is a worrisome development for the cause of small-d democracy. Some fairly large papers, he says, no longer staff their own state capital, leaving the public's business to take place with little or no journalistic observation. Likening bloggers to "parasites" in their reliance on newspapers, Hertzberg adds, "I suppose something will take its place, but I don't know what it is yet."
While a few liberal legislators attended the FairVote benefit, Matt Sledge, the executive director of FairVote RI, holds out hope that the concept will be in place for the 2012 US presidential election. If efforts for a veto override aren't successful, he says, supporters will reintroduce the legislation.
For more information on National Popular Vote, visit nationalpopularvote.com and fairvote.org/ri/.