For Release Sunday, January 15, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
But in the end, will we get the president the most Americans favor?
Don’t count on it. The hoary electoral college system lets states cast their electoral votes any way their legislatures determine. A minor electoral switch in one state can reverse the entire national election. There’s always a temptation to meddle.
Take Pennsylvania. For five elections running, Democratic candidates have triumphed there in “winner take all” style, capturing all of the state’s 20 electoral votes. Great for Democrats.
But the 2010 election gave Republicans control in Harrisburg. Gov. Tom Corbett endorsed a bill to split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by congressional district. The motive was transparent: to cut — roughly in half — the number of Pennsylvania electoral votes that President Obama could hope to win in the Keystone State.
That effort now seems shelved, but it reflects a bipartisan habit: When we can pull it off, we try to rejigger the election system to favor our side. A Supreme Court majority even did it in its infamous Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, stopping a recount that might have awarded the presidency to Al Gore (who actually led by more than 500,000 popular votes nationwide).
The Big Cure would seem obvious: institute a direct vote of the people, and scrap the electoral college, a jerry-rigged, last-minute concoction of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
For 68 years — since 1944, when the Gallup Poll first posed the question — overwhelming majorities of Americans have favored direct popular election of the president. But getting a constitutional amendment approved is so cumbersome that all attention has now turned to an ingenious, alternative approach.
It’s called the National Popular Vote initiative and its method is ingenious: Use a compact among the states to deliver all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes of citizens nationwide. The compact will go into effect when — but only when — states with votes constituting a majority of the electoral college (270 of the total of 538) formally approve it. The legality is clear: the Constitution gives state legislatures total power over casting electoral votes, plus the right to make interstate compacts.
So far the compact proposal has been approved by nine states which hold, cumulatively, 49 percent of the required 270 electoral votes. Included are Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, the District of Columbia — and California, in a big-time win for the movement this year.
There’s been a distinct Democratic cast to the group of states approving. Many Republican operatives, recalling the 2000 election, apparently feel the system somehow favors the Democrats. Plus, a significant number of GOP state legislators have been heavily wooed by the ultra-conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It opposes the National Popular Vote, charging the measure would “render minority groups voiceless and empower densely populated and ideologically homogenous regions as well as radical fringe groups.”
It’s a somewhat preposterous argument when one considers how “voiceless” many minority groups — from progressives in the Deep South to conservatives in the Northeast — may feel today. They know they’re so outnumbered in their states their votes will rarely if ever make a difference in choice of a president. And if everyone votes equally, how could direct popular vote for president really benefit “radical fringe groups?”
In fact, several states have reported significant Republican support for the National Popular Vote. Republicans voted 21-11 in favor, for example, when the New York Senate last June approved the proposed interstate compact. Republican supporters of a direct presidential vote have included, over the years, such stalwarts as Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
The reality is that a Republican could win the popular vote and lose the presidency just as easily as a Democrat. Each close election perpetuates a kind of insane electoral roulette which the National Popular Vote (
www.nationalpopularvote.com) would resolve.
Plus, a direct vote would end the Flyover Phenomenon. Candidates see little point in visiting, or paying much attention to the two-thirds of states rated “safe” for one party or the other (for example Republican Texas, Democratic California). Following Labor Day in 2008, more than 98 percent of presidential campaign spending, plus all the candidates’ campaign visits, went to just 15 battlefield states (among them Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina) that represent barely a third of the U.S. population.
This means that special interest causes, like ethanol in Iowa or Cuban-Americans in Florida, get inordinate attention. And we virtually invite voter apathy, non-participation, in most of our states.
The favoritism would disappear in the first presidential election under the National Popular Vote. Its proposition is simple: Each American’s vote ought to be inviolate — and have equal impact.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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