Last year Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pounded Louisiana with a horrible one-two punch of destruction. This year, it's just possible that Louisiana will send forth its own hurricane: a political hurricane to create a more representative democracy in America.
On May 10, a Louisiana House committee approved the National Popular Vote plan for presidential elections. If signed into law, it would make Louisiana the first of what promises to be dozens of states entering into an interstate agreement to guarantee election of the national popular vote winner in presidential elections -- and ensure every vote is equal no matter where it is cast.
Louisiana is the poster child for how the way states have chosen to allocate electoral votes results in rampant inequality and imbalances in policy. When Florida was hit by hurricanes in 2004, federal reaction was immediate and widely applauded in the state. But when Katrina and Rita came ashore in Louisiana in 2005, we all know the federal response was far more problematic.
It is hardly a stretch to finger the Electoral College as a key reason why Florida received so much better service from the federal government. Consider that Florida is the quintessential battleground state, so large and tightly balanced that it alone can tilt the presidency. In the final five weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, the four major party presidential and vice-presidential candidates made 61 campaign stops in Florida out of 291 in states around the country. Out of $237 million spent on television ads by the campaigns and their backers in that period, more than $64 million was spent in Florida.
In sharp contrast, Louisiana didn't earn even a single campaign visit during those final weeks, while a measly $203,000 was spent in the state on television ads. You can be absolutely certain that no campaign consultant worried about the concerns of Louisiana voters. Indeed George Bush's campaign team didn't poll a single person outside of 18 battleground states in the final two and a half years of the campaign.
Last year FairVote established an "attention index" based on campaign activities in the peak season of the 2004 campaign. If every state were treated equally, each would have had an attention index of 1.0. But Louisiana had an index of only 0.03 -- less than 1/30th of what it should have received under a system where every vote mattered equally. Remarkably, that actually put Louisiana ahead of 23 states, most of which were utterly ignored in the campaign, including almost all small states.
Given that it wasn't long ago that Louisiana was close in nationally competitive elections, some might think those days are coming back. But the number of battleground states is steadily shrinking, with only half the number of electoral votes "in play" as there were a generation ago. Without the National Popular Vote plan, Louisiana should expect even less attention in 2008 than the little it received in 2004.
Fortunately, the US Constitution gives states the power to do what's best for its people in deciding how to allocate electoral votes. In our nation's early years, few states in fact awarded all electoral votes to the statewide vote winner. Today, most states have adopted that approach, but it isn't in the Constitution -- and it certainly is not in the interests of Louisiana.
What most Americans want is simple: a national popular vote where every vote is equal and the candidate with the most votes wins. For decades Gallup polls have shown landslide support for a national vote where all Americans have an equal ability to hold the president accountable. Typically that support has covered Republicans, Democrats and independents alike -- that's why national backers included Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Louisiana leaders like Hale Boggs, Edwin Edwards and John Breaux.
Only since George Bush won the 2000 election despite losing the popular vote has Republican support dropped, but the new drive for a national popular vote is not about helping Democrats. George Bush, in fact, cruised to a national popular vote victory margin of three and a half million votes in 2004, but would have lost if 60,000 Ohio voters had changed their minds.
Louisiana has everything to gain and nothing to fear about being the first state to join this agreement. Nothing will change until the number of states in the agreement makes it decisive. That means we will either see presidential elections run exactly as they are now or we will have a national popular vote.
New ideas can take getting used to, but the National Popular Vote is as old as American democracy: holding elections for powerful offices where every vote is equal. We have decades of experience in running one-person, one-vote elections for governor and senator. When those elections are close, every voter matters, and every region of a state gets attention from at least one of the campaigns. States have every reason to establish this kind of democracy for presidential elections -- and the constitutionally-protected power to do just that. Here's hoping HB 927 advances to Governor Blanco's desk in 2006.
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote and co-author of the book Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. See www.fairvote.org or call 301-270-4616