An Oregon Man’s Struggle to Fix How We Elect Our Presidents
Jerry Spriggs has conducted a years-long effort to get states to ditch their winner-take-all practice, and insists the National Popular Vote compact isn’t the answer
What’s to be done about a country that holds itself up as the world’s gold standard for free and fair elections, yet throws out half the votes its people cast for president every four years?
It’s a jarring notion, but the data tells the story. Consider the 15 presidential elections from 1960 to 2016. On average, based on figures from the U.S. House of Representatives Archives, about 50 percent of the popular votes cast for America’s top federal executive in those contests were not reflected in the electoral vote, and this by official policy.
Jerry Spriggs deems this a form of “vote suppression,” something that should stick in our collective craw. And the former instructional designer and corporate trainer believes he knows what should be done about it. He wants states to take a monkey wrench to the “machinery” by which they convert popular votes to electoral votes. In short, he wants the outcome to reflect everyone’s vote by doing away with the winner-take-all practice.
As you may recall, if you were awake during your middle school civics unit, it’s not the popular vote that ushers a presidential hopeful into the White House, at least not directly. It’s the electoral vote, cast by a separate set of electors named in each state before the election and usually all but unknown to the public. The sticky wicket, Spriggs argues, is that almost every state — including Oregon, his home state — puts all its electoral votes in one basket and bestows it upon the ticket that wins the popular vote, with no recognition that some voters made a different choice.
“Why,” he asks, “should we have anybody not being represented if they’re voting for a significant candidate? Why is that even an issue?”
The thing is, there’s no rule forcing states to do it this way. The Constitution lets them allot their electoral votes in whatever way grips their fancy. But the statewide winner-take-all (Spriggs calls it “all-or-nothing”) system has been the method of choice since the mid-1800s for virtually every state but Maine and Nebraska, which allot their votes based on both statewide and congressional district results, potentially resulting in a split vote. Spriggs and others argue that this approach makes it possible for candidates to do the unthinkable: win the office without capturing the popular vote. It’s happened five times in our nation’s history, two of them in this century alone. The 2016 election has become the new poster child for this phenomenon. If you voted Republican in that contest but your state leaned Democrat, tough luck. Your vote ultimately was ignored. In states that awarded the Republican ticket all of their electoral votes, Democratic voters were likewise disregarded.
The affable retiree got so concerned about this problem a few years ago that he decided to ponder alternatives. Pondering led to researching, which led to a book, a Web site and a personal campaign. Not for elective office, though; rather, a bid to fix the vote allocation issue.
The solution, Spriggs believes, is for states to divvy up electoral votes proportionately according to how their populations vote. It’s a concept he calls Equal Voice Voting (EVV) because, with the formula he’s devised, every voter’s voice, or ballot, matters. No vote is ignored. Another selling point: his plan requires no constitutional amendment. States are free to tweak their own statutes to make it happen.
Spriggs is not a fan of the NPV for a host of reasons, but mostly because it doesn’t address the winner-take-all issue.
The genial 71-year-old sat at the kitchen table of his modest-but-cozy hillside home near Portland recently, recalling how he came to be pressing his case to hundreds of state legislators across the country and anyone else who will listen. It started in the 1990s when he lived in Arizona as a registered Democrat in a Republican stronghold. In 1992 and 1996 he voted for Bill Clinton.
“But since I lived in Arizona, my vote was one of those that didn’t count,” he says. “My vote was not represented. I was annoyed by that. So, I started fiddling with numbers, and I played with them for a number of years.”
At first, the amateur board game inventor’s interest was a matter of mere curiosity. But that soon changed.
“It started out as kind of a hobby, and it just kept growing and kept growing until I couldn’t let go of it,” he confesses.
His game design experience taught him how to structure a contest that’s not only fun but also fair to all participants. He used that knowledge as he tinkered with formulas that, he hoped, would equitably translate popular votes to electoral votes on a proportional basis until, eventually, he hit upon one that seemed workable. He tested it against the actual 2012 election outcome to see how it would have played out, had it been in use. The electoral vote tracked the popular vote closely. So, he went back another year and another year. He finally went as far back as 1980 and applied his formula to every presidential contest through 2012.
“In every election the results were stunning.” The electoral vote result correlated closely with the popular vote. “I thought, gosh, I have something here.”
Convinced he was on the right track, he decided it was time to share his idea with the world. He wrote and self-published a book. Filling it chock-full of data and detailed-yet-readable analysis, he called it, “Equal Voice Voting.” In 2017 he expanded it to include elections back to 1960, plus the 2016 Trump-Clinton election (in which, according to his formula, neither candidate would have reached the 270-vote majority). As part of the updated edition, he changed the title to the more intuitive-sounding “Making All Votes Count!” It’s available on Amazon.com.
Spriggs recently began penning a weekly blog, which he sends to over 1,100 state legislators. He previously reached out to over 30,000 college professors of law, history, political science, communications and journalism but was largely ignored.
All of this Spriggs has done almost entirely as a one-man band. He has no staff, no volunteers, no hired consultants and no outside funding source. To date he calculates he’s received just over $900 in sales from the current edition of his book, but has also shelled out over $5,700 from his own pocket, mostly to set up and operate his Equal Voice Voting Web site. It’s a Sisyphean labor that is a triumph of grit over success — so far. Promoting his initiative has meant incessant toil and the occasional sense of futility. Yet he feels driven to keep rolling the rock up the hill, hoping his idea will inspire someone, somewhere, to step forward and help him champion the cause.
His is not the only crusade aimed at solving the electoral-vs-popular vote problem, of course. A better-known alternative is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (aka NPV), an idea that’s been around since 2006. States that adopt the NPV become part of a compact in which members agree to award all of their electoral votes to the countrywide popular vote winner, regardless of the outcome among their own voters. So, for example, even if your state’s popular vote went to the Democratic contender but the nationwide vote tally favored the Republican aspirant, all of your state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the GOP side.
Spriggs is not a fan of the NPV for a host of reasons, but mostly because it doesn’t address the winner-take-all issue. Under NPV, this aspect would not only remain, he observes, but “the disparity of voting results between the popular vote and the Electoral College would expand. For NPV to truly work, it needs to have all 50 states and D.C. participate. Since that won’t happen, the results become tremendously lopsided.”
Dr. Jim Moore agrees that NPV is not a fair solution. On the faculty of Pacific University’s Politics and Government department in Forest Grove, Oregon, Moore observes, “The National Popular Vote idea is more about one candidate winning the election than about ensuring that voters’ votes are actually heard in the process. It simply replaces a system that denies the relevance of votes for non-winners with another system that does the same thing. It denies the voices of those who voted for the other candidate.”
Twelve years after its supporters unveiled the NPV bill, it’s still trying to gain acceptance. The electoral total of states agreeing to be bound by the NPV compact must reach 270 — a majority of the country’s 538 total votes — for it to take effect. But as of early February, only 11 states and the District of Columbia had bought in. These jurisdictions represent 172 votes, or 63 percent of what’s needed. The bill has struggled to get lawmakers’ blessing in most states, but is proving to be stubbornly resilient. For example, in the Oregon Legislature, since its first introduction in 2007, it has failed to pass nine times. And yet it’s in the hopper again for a tenth try this year.
Oddly, it seems the Russians may be more intrigued by his idea than American lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Spriggs is angling to find a sympathetic ear among lawmakers in multiple states, but so far with negligible results. In 2014, a bill based on his idea was submitted to Maryland’s House Ways & Means Committee, but it was tabled. He talked to a supportive state senator in New Mexico not long ago who said, “’You’ve got something for everybody here.’ It really got his attention,” Spriggs says. “But it’s a heavy lift from having a right answer to getting legislators to move on it.”
Late last fall, he worked with the Legislative Counsel’s office of the Oregon Legislature to draft language for a bill. At the moment, it’s still officially just a concept in search of a sponsor. Although he’s contacted every member of both houses, none seems interested in sponsoring or even hearing about his idea.
Spriggs is clearly frustrated, not only by “the obvious lack of curiosity and willingness” to consider NPV alternatives, but also by the view of some that the winner-take-all system is not unfair. For example, on one occasion he met with a Democratic state senator to explain the problem. Although the senator acknowledged that preventing a citizen from voting would be a form of voter suppression, he didn’t agree that forfeiting that that person’s vote via the winner-take-all method would constitute suppression.
“Incredible!” bristles Spriggs.
Oddly, it seems the Russians may be more intrigued by his idea than American lawmakers, if a strange episode in December 2016 is any sign. Only a few weeks after Donald Trump won the presidency, Spriggs’s Web site was pinged about 80-plus times a day from St. Petersburg and Moscow for a two-week period. Then the pinging stopped as quickly as it began and hasn’t repeated since. The meaning of this tantalizing mystery shall forever remain beyond reach.
Besides lawmakers’ preoccupation with NPV, other factors are also casting headwinds against Spriggs’s effort to sell his Equal Voice Voting concept, including short attention spans and a lack of fear. Fellow Oregonian William Denney, an independent advisor on organizational excellence, a fellow in the American Society for Quality, and an EVV supporter, explains:
“Unfortunately, one of the difficulties Jerry has is, when he tries to explain this to people, they get impatient and they get confused by the calculation, because they want a simple answer, and this isn’t a simple answer. It’s a fair answer. It’s probably the best answer. But it’s not simple. You have to think about it. You have to understand why his calculation does what it does and what the results would be. And it’s hard to keep people’s attention on that type of thing today, because somehow we’ve lost our attention span.”
Also, citizens aren’t fearful enough yet about the consequences of the status quo.
“To try to drive change,” Denney explains, “you first have to have a situation where people are really concerned, that if they don’t make a change, something terrible will happen. It’s what used to be called ‘the burning platform.’ If people don’t think they are on a burning platform, they won’t do anything. If they believe that the burning platform is going to kill them, they will jump and get away from it. Otherwise, many will just stand there and burn.”
Despite evidence that a majority of Americans are disenchanted with the Electoral College (based on a spring 2018 Pew Research Center poll in which 55% of respondents supported replacing it with a popular vote-based approach), they’re not ready to take a leap to replace it.
“The fear level is not high enough” to make people jump from the current system to something different, says Denney.
Spriggs is realistic about his chances of getting his concept converted to a bill that lawmakers will consider, and he calibrates his objectives accordingly.
“I haven’t had anybody say that it was a terrible idea,” he says. “So, my short-term goal is to get people’s attention, to get people talking.”
Regardless of the outcome of his initiative, his family and friends think he’s done a pretty impressive job to achieve what he’s done so far.
Declares his wife, Jane: “I can honestly say I’m in awe. When he first started, it was more like, well, he’s developing another game, because that’s what he does, and he’s a numbers guy. The family wasn’t paying much attention. But as time went by, and as he formulated his whole idea more and more, and it became more concrete, it was like, oh my gosh, you really do have something here. I am really proud of him. It’s amazing what he’s put together.”