Pam Wilmot

Preserve, Protect, and Defend Democracy

Air Date: March 18, 2019

Common Cause Electoral Reform director Pam Wilmot discusses the National Popular Vote, voting rights, and the state of democracy in 2019.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, so then we consider American electoral politics. In our 2018 state and federal elections by an overwhelming majority in the popular vote the nation sought to restore democratic accountability, but that may not be possible across the Midwest where GOP gerrymandered majority legislatures are removing the powers of newly elected democratic governors. What Republicans are doing in Wisconsin Michigan and North Carolina too is the stuff of third world regimes. There’s no mistaking it. Republican leaderships seem intent on executing the very soul of our democracy, negating “We the People.” And let’s not forget too that in two presidential elections within the last 20 years, the majority vote were denied representation in the White House. The national popular vote campaign of states pledges to honor the will of the majority in our Electoral College and today to discuss that and other electoral matters is Pam Wilmot, electoral reform director for Common Cause and executive director of Common Cause, Massachusetts. Thank you for being here. Pam.

WILMOT: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: What is the status of the national popular vote today? How many states are signed on? How many states need to be signed on in order for that pact to rule at the end of the day, so that the candidate with the popular vote will win the election?

WILMOT: So national popular vote is a state based plan to guarantee the election to the popular vote winner in all 50 states. And we currently have, the plan has passed in 12 different states, four small states, actually three plus DC, which has three electoral votes four medium sized states and four big states, including your home state here of New York and surrounding states. So we have that makes for a 172 electoral votes out of the 270 that are required for the plan to become effective. Nothing is changed right now for the states that have passed this plan. It only triggers when we get 98 more electoral states representing 98 more electoral votes.

HEFFNER: You’re more than halfway there.

WILMOT: We’re about two thirds. So, it’s actually been doing great. I have been working in the field of election reform for many years, more than I care to say. And change is hard. I worked on early voting in Massachusetts for probably, it’s been around for 30 years and finally passed, not a couple of years ago and had, it’s has had second trial this, this fall. Actually, I know New York is still considering that. There are many election reforms that just take a long time and that’s partially because our elected officials are used to the current system. The national popular vote is something that Americans have preferred they want and Gallup has been polling on it for since the 50s and it always has huge support in the populous.

HEFFNER: It’s also the most feasible way, unlike a Constitutional Amendment, to enact a change that would force the Electoral College to respect the majority vote.

WILMOT: That is absolutely true. And let’s be clear, why are we in the current situation that we are, where a three quarters of the states are ignored in the presidential election.

We have a handful of battleground states where, all of the money and the visits go, we all know their names, they do shift slightly over time, but Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then a smattering of others, sometimes it, Wisconsin, sometimes not sometimes, but those core states are where the election takes place. And the reason is because of their winner take all rules combined with the setup of the Electoral College. Winner take all is not in the Constitution so it doesn’t need to be changed by a Constitutional Amendment. States can do that right now. My home state of Massachusetts has changed the way we’ve awarded electors 11 different times. Two states do it by district allocation, that’s Maine and Nebraska. So a Constitutional Amendment is very, it takes a very long time to do and to undo and this retains the power in the states to maintain how we elect our president, which is appropriate

HEFFNER: In what states is this legislation pending and up for debate and possibly votes in 2019?

WILMOT: 2019 we’ll see introductions in many different states. We don’t have the full list at the moment, but it has passed and 11, in addition to the 12 that have fully enacted the legislation, 11 other states have, it has passed one chamber. And some of those that I think you’ll see again, are Oregon where it has passed over and over again in one chamber, Maine, Delaware, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada. There’s a whole long list. Arkansas, Arizona. We’re, you know, the sky’s the limit. I think that people are very interested in this reform at the moment, given the fact that we’ve had many close presidential elections, and the outcome, I think one thing that’s important to remember is this isn’t about helping one political party or another political party, despite what some might think. This is a good strong democratic – small d, not a big d – reform because it will make every vote count in every state as opposed to the small little pressure cooker that we have in the small number of places. I think people don’t realize how little attention most states get in this whole process.

HEFFNER: I am more hopeful than you Pam that in 2020 there will be an expanded field of so-called battlegrounds. I think we might be surprised in reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. I’m not saying Alabama and Mississippi are going to be turf for the Democrats to compete, but there are states, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, maybe even the northwest more expansively than Oregon and Washington that are competitive.

WILMOT: Even looking back for 20 years, 98, somewhere in between 94 and 98 percent of the money and visits are spent in just 12 states.

HEFFNER: Oh I agree.

WILMOT: This is a consistent. I’m not saying it’s going to be three states.

HEFFNER: Sure.

WILMOT: Maybe it will be a slightly expanded field. In fact, 2016 was a slightly different map than 2012.

HEFFNER: Sure.

WILMOT: But, the fact remains that a two thirds of the state gets either get zero visits in zero money.

HEFFNER: Right.

WILMOT: And then we’ve also looked at, as you go into governing, how sitting presidents tend to favor those states where, you know, a small number of votes can flip an entire election.

HEFFNER: Your work, the national popular vote and its passage is dependent upon, contingent upon, legislatures. In this case, the Democrats are the party that favor this more than the Republican. So Democratic legislators, democratic governors who will sign rather than Republican governors who might veto that kind of legislation.

WILMOT: There’s a lot of misinformation out both in the public and in the legislature. I think everyone remembers their civics course from grade school and a lot of the information they got was wrong. And so, having, overcoming some of that is important. We’ve also learned that we need to talk to everyone. Small one on one conversations really helped to make a huge difference. Having validators from both sides of the aisle. This isn’t actually just isn’t a Republican, I mean they’re, the numbers in terms of polling are significantly different between the two sides and, but we do have many dedicated Republicans who are strongly supportive of this. We have Republicans on the National Popular Vote Board, endorsers including Newt Gingrich and Tom Sannicandro, and Jake, former senator Jake Garn, all sorts of folks and then also those who are in the trenches currently and going out to states and promoting it as well. So we try to talk to folks on both sides of the aisle to kind of tamp down some of the Republican knee jerk opposition because sometimes when they think about it, they realize actually the system doesn’t really benefit us. And that’s why we passed the Oregon I mean the Oklahoma Senate. We passed the Arizona House, both very red chambers, and we were set up for victories in many other states until certain prominent Republicans decided that it wasn’t something they wanted to see. And we’re still kind of overcoming those obstacles.

HEFFNER: The prominent Republicans who thought – what you’re not saying is they thought it would be disadvantageous to their long-term political trajectory, that their, their ability to hold onto power. Isn’t that the crux of their resistance?

WILMOT: Yeah, probably.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about,

WILMOT: You know, because I think they’re really rationally aren’t great reasons against a popular vote. A popular vote is something that every other election in the country and pretty close to the world when it comes to democratic elections are elected by. Other people in other parts of the world think we are crazy to have the system that we have,

HEFFNER: And, as you say, in civics classroom, you come to understand the Electoral College not as the popular vote. You come to understanding the way that it’s been practiced, which is you got to win enough states to reach that threshold.

WILMOT: So, so some of the misinformation is that small states benefit from the Electoral College in the current system. They don’t benefit. There are 12 small states, half of them are Democratic half of them Republican, only one – New Hampshire is a battleground state, only one, New Hampshire and this time around Maine because of their district system, got any kind of attention in the presidential election. Compare that to Ohio, which has roughly the equal population of those states. And Ohio has, depending on the election, 60 visits in a short window in the fall, and millions and millions and millions of dollars of investment.

HEFFNER: Let’s review more broadly trends in 2018.

WILMOT: OK.

HEFFNER: Automatic voter registration, ranked choice voting, early voting. There are obstacles now, some of which have been signed into law and towards the end in the lame-duck session of Republican outgoing Republican terms to a bridge or truncate the duration of early voting. Why can’t we have automatic voter registration in every single state?

WILMOT: It is one kind of election reform that is more bipartisan than some of the others, and there are reasons why Republicans like it, and the reasons why Democrats like it and they tend to be different reasons, but the reform combines both adding more accuracy and security to the system, which is something the Republicans tend to be drawn to and it’s something that it registered more voters, which is something that Democrats are running, and both are good goals. I mean, we want to have as someone who tends more to the progressive spectrum, we, I think that we all want more accurate, and secure elections and we just don’t want more accurate, and secure elections at the expense of voter involvement or as an excuse for suppressing the vote, which sometimes it has been used. But automatic voter registration is a legitimate way of accomplishing both goals at the same time, we have passed 15 states already and are on track to getting to about half of them by 2020. Republican states, on the ballot it won in Alaska and in Michigan. And in a number of states on the ballot, in Nevada, but it will, it’s been introduced by Republicans as well as Democrats. It is going to be introduced in Congress. It has been for this session coming up. So I think we have a good shot for that reform, particularly.

HEFFNER: Does it technically mean something different in each state or is it essentially the same in each state, the way that it actually works.

WILMOT: There are slight differences on how you decline to register to vote. So both, the system essentially means that you go from an opt-in system where you have to do something affirmative to where you have to opt-out. So how that opt-out system works is slightly different for each state.

HEFFNER: How does the opt-in work though, in effect, when you turn 18?

WILMOT: So currently, if you go…

HEFFNER: Or I should say not opt-in. How does the automatic process, how do you learn of the automatic process?

WILMOT: So in Massachusetts and Oregon and Alaska and maybe a few more states as we’re heading toward this, you go to a covered agency, you provide information about and proof that you’re a citizen and that you’re of the correct age and then you’re registered to vote and then you get, if you don’t want to be registered voter, you’ll have to do an extra step a through the mail you get a postcard and then you have to send that back. So you have to affirmatively take a step. In Alaska it’s actually tied to the dividend, the oil dividend that they get. In some of the other automatic states, they have an opportunity right there at the agency to decline. So how that all works as a little bit different. It’s either after the fact, through a mail, through a mailer or at the agency itself.

HEFFNER: When you turn 18, you’re not in the automatic system, able to go to the poll the next day and vote.

WILMOT: No.

HEFFNER: It’s still a process. So it’s not exactly automatic in the sense that you’re mailed something six months before you turn 18 to remind you that you’re now registered, right?

WILMOT: Correct.

HEFFNER: There’s still a registration, even an automatic registration.

WILMOT: That is true. That is true,

HEFFNER: What is closest to most seamless in that sense of it’s like your selective service card and that you just know you can…

WILMOT: So we don’t have a national voter database. Voters are registered by state.

HEFFNER: Right. But I was really.

WILMOT: To do that process you’re suggesting would have to be some sort of national process that would have to pass at the national level, would have to do a lot of different changes. I’m not saying that it’s not a goal. Many other countries do that. It’s part of their, you know, your right as a citizen in that country. You don’t have to make an extra step. But that’s not how our election administration system works. I think the most seamless would be Massachusetts or Oregon or Alaska currently. I think more states will be moving in that direction. We have not implemented our law. Oregon has, Massachusetts won’t be implementing until 2020.

HEFFNER: But you do think that the states would be allowed under current federal law to send reminders in effect to folks so that they know what they need to do if they are automatically registered. So – six months…

WILMOT: But they don’t have to do anything,

HEFFNER: Right. But would it be a good thing if they did, if they kind of alerted folks, you know, you are about to become eligible to vote.

WILMOT: That is actually something that is done as part of some of the electronic registration information center states. So it requires, there’s about, I think 26 states that are now part of Eric. This is the good guy answer to crosscheck. But one of the components is that the states that are part of this agreement must send such an email to, or a letter to every eligible citizen, whether you turn 18, whether you move into the state and say, here’s how you register to vote.

Automatic voter registration is a little bit different. That’s where you get registered when you interact with a certain government agency like the RMV or DMV in most states or a healthcare agency. So in Massachusetts, the Medicaid office and also the, the, the healthcare market, the connector is also part of it. So if you get healthcare through the state, whether it’s private payer or a public pay, you will be automatically registered to vote unless you declined through that postcard at the end. So we want to opt and we want to continue that voluntary process so that people can opt out. And that is, we think that’s important.

HEFFNER: Is there anything preventing cities when it comes to local issues from adopting some kind of automatic system?

WILMOT: It depends. Yes, there is. In many states, there is a presumption at the at the state or the county level. Some places a county might be able to do it. Most places a city couldn’t do it.

HEFFNER: It just occurs to me, you notice that we’re here recording this in New York City, which has really dismal voter turnout for municipal elections. And it’s occurred to me why, why can’t the mayor in effect started his own process – or mayors in other cities where turnout is too low?

WILMOT: Well, one of the reasons that turnout is so low in city elections is they tend to be a different times than all the other elections. It’s pretty clear in the US that we have too many elections for the people to really focus on and pay attention, but doesn’t mean we need less elective offices, although that may be the case. I think, for example, in my own state, register a probate or clerk of courts. Those are administrative positions. Those are not representative positions. They should not be elected. There’s no accountability. It really makes no sense, but if you can combine them on one day, on an even-numbered year, you’re going to get a lot higher participation rate than if you have like we have town elections in the spring, city elections in the odd year, state elections on one even year and presidentials on another.

HEFFNER: Sure. What do you think are the next steps forward for expanding enfranchisement and voter turnout?

WILMOT: Well, I think national popular vote is a critical issue and is, we’re going to be seeing, making, making some changes, automatic voter registration is, we’ve talked about both of those, those are great. Ensuring and protecting, expanding early voting periods has been shown to make a big difference. Some states will eventually go to a mail-in in, all mail-in ballot like Oregon, Washington, and now Colorado, and that’s where the state actually mails you a ballot and then you can turn them back at a certain vote center so that there is still some of that civic festival sort of atmosphere as they, we have on the polls. I’m rather attached to that myself. But having, that all has been shown to increase participation more than almost anything. Election Day registration is another reform. All of these things are all good. I think you see some advances, some retreats, but we’re, voters do like them. It has been hard to repeal. So for example, in some of the states with a ballot initiative process, they’ve tried to repeal a electronic registration and then the voters have reinstated it.

HEFFNER: In two states that you identified, decisive battle grounds, Florida and Ohio, they’ve done everything to disenfranchise folks. In Ohio they’ve taken folks off the rolls if they don’t vote, so you don’t have a right not to vote anymore, otherwise you’re out of town if you don’t respond to the government because you vote. You didn’t vote in two or three subsequent elections. In Florida we saw what happened with the screwy process they have there with this most recent senate and gubernatorial race. Is there any hope for Ohio and or Florida?

WILMOT: Absolutely. So for example, Florida, the voters just the same election, adopted giving back voting rights to people who are convicted of a felony. Voters in both of those states voted for some form of redistricting reform. So as you know, redistricting is another critical issue. As those restrictions are put. I think you’ll see more representative government in both of those states.

HEFFNER: Well, you give us some hope in, in thinking about that. My concern would be for those newly enfranchised, formerly incarcerated people because folks who are already registered have a hard time voting in Florida.

WILMOT: True. Ballot design. Uh…

HEFFNER: I mean, it sounds like sort of a confluence of perfect storms that always plague that state.

WILMOT: Well, part of the reason why it does, again, is because so much rides on their vote. They’re one of those few states where the number of Republicans and Democrats are almost equally balanced and suppressing a few votes can make a huge difference to the outcome. Now, if on the other side they say, oh, well then you’re in you know, you’re making people voted illegally, but if you voted illegally, you go to jail. And the only, you know, we have just never seen the kind of fraud that is sort of the bugaboo out there. We do see absentee ballots stolen and filled out or collected and filled out, or you know, that there is not, like there isn’t any kind of fraud, but the kind that they are trying to suppress is not the kind that happens.

HEFFNER: But the purging in Ohio,

WILMOT: Yes,

HEFFNER: Of voters. Has there been any response, because the Supreme Court upheld that. So what can be the response more deliberately when you see tens of thousands of voters thrown off the rolls?

WILMOT: So they can be reregistered. You can go through an automatic voter registration process just so Ohio’s process is they send out a card and if you don’t return it, you, and then you don’t vote for four years, then you are removed from the rolls. So it isn’t like it happened in a blink of an instant. Groups who are on the ground can get more people out to participate so we can reregister those people and that is happening. People who have been removed are being reached out to and getting reengaged in the process. I think one of the other things we can do is look at campaign finance reform and just the overall general discourse because people are very turned off by politics and how nasty it is. And that’s not also not without intent, because there is, I think it’s a very intentional campaign to turn people off and to tune them out.

HEFFNER: Well, thank you Pam, for this really informative exchange.

WILMOT: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.