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Friday, February 26, 2021

How the popular vote movement could affect Floridian politics

Graphic of assorted voting icons and ballots

As Florida continues to dominate the American political conversation ahead of Election Day, numerous proposals are working to change how the state’s population votes, both on a local and national level. 

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is waiting in the wings and could lead to a seismic change. This is an initiative that seeks to determine the winner of the U.S. presidential election by the popular vote, without amending the U.S. Constitution. 

The third proposed amendment on the Florida ballot this fall has a chance to affect how Floridians vote. The amendment would institute a jungle primary, in which every Floridian would be able to vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would proceed to a general election. Currently, the Sunshine State has a closed primary system, meaning that only registered party members are allowed to participate in primary elections. 

Public support for ex-felon voting rights has continued since the 2018 passage of Amendment 4, as prolonged resistance against Republican efforts to dismantle the bill demonstrates how Florida has seen a surge in voting rights advocacy.

However, the proposal that would likely cause the biggest change in Florida’s electoral process is the NPVIC.

Florida is one of the few consistent battleground states, along with Ohio and Pennsylvania, that draws national media attention and it nearly doubles every other state in campaign spending

Holding the third most electoral votes in the country at 29, it’s a strong indicator of who will win the presidency. The last six presidents have all won Florida. 

North Florida in particular has become one of the most popular regions in the country for presidential campaigns despite its sparse population. Recently, President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail in Sanford and Ocala while Vice President Mike Pence held a large rally in The Villages, a retirement community south of Gainesville.

“Florida is the ‘golden egg’ of the electoral college,” said David Hill, a Stetson University political science professor. 

Its number of votes and close races makes Florida highly competitive within the college, Hill said.

The suggested electoral college workaround could have a significant impact on the Florida political landscape, possibly as soon as 2024. By switching to a popular vote system, Florida’s influence on national elections would be reduced.

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“Florida would no longer be the crowning jewel that it is under the electoral college,” Hill said.

In the electoral college system, citizens of each state vote on electors instructed to represent their constituency. The number of electors from each state is determined by their representation in Congress. 

But the college has faced controversy after electing the loser of the popular vote on five occasions, including recent presidents such as George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. It has been consistently unpopular with the American people, according to the Pew Research Center

Thirty-seven U.S. states have voted for the same party in each of the last five presidential elections, meaning that campaigns can comfortably concentrate their resources in a select few states, Hill said. However, under a popular vote system, voters in each state are weighed equally and resources would be allocated differently. 

Michael Binder, a University of North Florida political science professor, said he expects the national attention that Florida enjoys to diminish under a national popular vote system, and for more mobilization to occur at a local level.

“As a campaign you’re going to want to target states that have lower turnouts among your base,” Binder said. “That wouldn’t necessarily be Florida, which has a high turnout in both parties.”

While Floridians are used to presidential candidates touching down in the Sunshine State, Michael Pomante II, a political science professor at Jacksonville University, said that voters can expect much more interaction with their local parties. 

“You would see an increase in local party organization,” Pomante said. “Local parties are going to be reaching out to voting more because they understand their base better, where candidates will go to urban areas where they can get the most bang for their buck.”

Members have agreed to allocate their electors towards the winner of the popular vote. If an electoral majority of states agree to the NPVIC, the compact will go into effect, meaning that the election will be decided by the candidate that wins the most votes nationwide. 

Sixteen states, including California, New York and Illinois, have signed on to NPVIC. These 16 states possess 196 electoral votes between them, 76 away from the 270 electoral votes which would give compact members a controlling share of the electoral college.  

The bill has also been passed by one legislative chamber in seven other states. These states have a combined 78 electoral votes.

While the legislation has not passed in the state of Florida at any level, there are many voting rights groups in the state, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Floridians for NPV, that include the NPVIC in their platform. 

Out of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., half of the population lives in the most-populous 143, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Bradley Smith, a law professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, argues that under a direct national popular vote, candidates will travel from big city to big city, ignoring middle America. 

“This is a huge country with vastly different interests,” Smith said. “The electoral college forces you to build a campaign across all of the country as rolling up the margins in specific states doesn’t do you much good.

For advocates of the NPVIC, their fight will continue long after the 270-vote threshold is reached. The compact delves into legal grey areas, and its legitimacy will almost certainly be legislated in congress and the federal courts. 

The NPVIC is an interstate compact, a type of agreement that has been used for trade or to evade policy between states. However, the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that compacts which threaten or reduce the political power of other states are unconstitutional. 

Brian J. Gaines, a University of Illinois political science professor, believes that Congress would only approve the bill if Democrats had the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, which looks possible for the upcoming 2020 election, according to FiveThirtyEight simulations. But, this has only happened twice since 1994. 

There are a few practical pitfalls of the NPVIC legislation as well, most notably its inability to compel states to recount their votes.

“The nightmare scenario for a national-popular-vote standard is an extremely close election,” Gaines said. “In that case, every county in the country would see a replay of the messy Florida recount in 2000. Both parties would have to employ armies of lawyers to fight for every possible vote under any possible complaint.”

Nothing short of a constitutional amendment will ensure that the popular vote consistently decides American elections in the coming decades, Gaines says. Its unorthodox nature means that the compact is very vulnerable to shifting political power. 

“I can imagine the fight going on a lot longer,” Gaines said.

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