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McConnell warns of popular vote 'catastrophic outcome'

Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell makes a speech about sweeping gains in mid-term elections, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, November 4, 2010.

Addressing what he called “the most important issue in America that nobody is talking about,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned Wednesday that the National Popular Vote movement is “getting dangerously close to achieving their goal of eliminating the Electoral College without actually amending the Constitution -- without anybody even noticing, unfortunately, what they’re up to.”

The National Popular Vote is a compact among state legislatures under which they pledge that they’ll award their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes nationwide, even if that candidate was not the majority choice of their state’s voters.

So far, California, seven other states, and the District of Columbia (all of which have large Democratic majorities) have passed legislation taking the National Popular Vote pledge. Those states and D.C. account for 132 electoral votes. The compact says it is to take effect when states with a total of at least 270 electoral votes have agreed to it.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution gives each state legislature the power to decide how its state’s presidential electors are selected. All but two states (Nebraska and Maine) use a winner-take-all system in which the person who gets the most popular votes in that state wins all of its electoral votes.

In a speech at the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, McConnell said a national popular vote tally might require recounts in all 50 states, if the margin of victory were small.

“Imagine the following scenario: you’ve got a national election within 100,000 votes. That happened in 1968,” McConnell said.

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The national popular vote would give “every precinct in America the incentive to have a recount so that recounts are going on in 50 states … When the national popular vote total is the way the president is chosen, then every vote in America in every precinct in America would become the subject for endless litigation. There wouldn’t be a chance the presidency would be resolved by Jan. 20 in time for swearing in.”

This would, McConnell said, be “a catastrophic outcome” and “a constitutional crisis” that “brings this country to its knees. We’ve never had a situation where the president wasn’t sworn in by the date specified in the Constitution.”

He added, “The proponents of this absurd and dangerous concept are trying to get this done while nobody notices, just sort of sneak this through,” and “we need to kill it in the cradle before it grows up.”

McConnell was joined at the event by the secretaries of state – the chief election officials in the states – of Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, all of whom are Republicans and all of whom oppose the National Popular Vote.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach acknowledged that under the current electoral vote system voting by ineligible people might occur in hotly contested states.

Kobach contended that with NPV, “the incentive for voter fraud increases dramatically overall because you can just go to the state that is the weakest link in the chain and has the lowest protections against voter fraud and run up a huge number of fraudulently cast votes in that state much more effectively than going to a battleground state.”

Until now, enthusiasm for the NPV idea has come mostly from Democratic states and from progressives who are still chagrined that Al Gore lost the White House in 2000 even though he had more popular votes than George W. Bush. Gore’s defeat was the fourth time in the nation’s history that the person with the largest number of popular votes didn’t win the electoral vote tally, (with 270 needed to win).

Four years ago, it seemed clear that America would not see a reprise of the 2000 election. In the fall of 2008, Barack Obama had a significant lead in several battleground states such as Colorado.

But this time around a close election, and even a 2000 scenario, appears more plausible. That has revived interest in the national popular vote, which now has the backing of wealthy businessman Tom Golisano, a former independent candidate for governor of New York.  

Some Republicans are also backing the idea.

Republican Ray Haynes, former whip of the California state assembly, said, “35 states and 225 million Americans have absolutely no say over how the president is elected” because candidates spend all their time in the battleground states: Wisconsin, Virginia, Colorado and a handful of others.

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Haynes said National Popular Vote would benefit California – a state no Republican presidential candidate has carried since 1988 – by giving candidates a reason to go there in the fall campaign and appeal to the state’s voters.  

Right now, he said, “California is the national ATM for every presidential candidate. In the last election we put $152 million into the presidential campaigns, but do you know how many visits California got from presidential candidates to court California voters? Zero.”

He said in the fall campaign the candidates “don’t care about California issues. They care about what happens in Florida, they care about what happens in Ohio, they care about what happens in Pennsylvania, but they don’t even talk to California.”

This would change under a National Popular Vote system because even though there are more Democratic voters in California than Republicans, there still leaves a huge number of GOP voters in the Golden State: at least five million – the number McCain won there in 2008 – and potentially far more than that if a GOP candidate showed up in the state and competed for them.

All of those votes would be added to the GOP candidate’s national vote total – which could win him the White House.

There’s another reason Republicans should support the National Popular Vote system, Haynes said. He sees a scenario in which Obama very narrowly carries the bare minimum of states needed to get 270 electoral votes: let’s say Virginia and Ohio by 10,000 votes each. “There’s a very serious chance that Obama loses the popular vote and wins the election. It would be the 2000 election in reverse.”