Friday, August 29, 2014
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Confessions of an Electoral College dropout

The case for a national popular vote

Confessions of an Electoral College dropout

 

 

Here's a vastly expanded version of my Sunday print column, thanks to the limitless frontier of the blogosphere:


I spoke to a lot of audiences during the recent election season, and invariably someone would stand up and ask whether I thought we should ditch the Electoral College and choose our presidents via the national popular vote. I always answered yes. And people always applauded.

I was surprised the first time that happened, but then I checked the public opinion polls. It turns out that we have long been a nation of College "dropouts"; according to the folks at Gallup, a majority of Americans has consistently favored a popular-vote decision for the past 50 years.

This sentiment makes perfect sense, considering all the ways that the archaic Electoral College — devised by the Founding Fathers partly as a sop to Southern slaveholders — undercuts the core tenants of democracy. It essentially disenfranchises millions of voters, depresses voter turnout, favors the small states at the expense of the populous states, and has, on four occasions, handed the presidency to the guy who got fewer votes than his opponent.

Foreigners can’t fathom why we cling to this institution. Last year, two visiting radio journalists from Singapore asked me, "Why doesn’t America simply give the presidency to the person who gets the most votes?" I was barely able to explain how the Electoral College works, much less defend it. I did manage to point out that the electors were originally intended to be enlightened people who could vote in the national interest, whereas the average citizen in a dispersed agrarian society was thought to have insufficient information - but that concept clearly has no relevence today, given the fact that the average citizen, if so inclined, can study a candidate's issue agenda simply by powering up a cellphone.

Yet the Electoral College, a remnant of the powdered-wig era, endures. On Dec. 15, one week from today, the 538 electors will gather in the 50 state capitals, and the District of Columbia, to formally cast their votes for president. Virtually all of them will honor the results in their respective states. Given the decisive victory for Barack Obama, there will be no drama — unlike eight years ago, when the candidate who received 540,000 fewer votes than his opponent ultimately got the prize.

And, lest we forget, the same thing nearly happened four years ago, when a switch of just 59,388 votes in Ohio would have handed the presidency to John Kerry — even though he trailed President Bush in the national tally by 3.5 million votes.

As the famed presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns once cautioned about our election process, "It’s a game of Russian roulette, and one of these days we are going to blow our brains out." He voiced that warning 32 years before the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the presidency to the 2000 popular-vote loser; and considering the wreckage that this guy is now leaving behind, one could argue that our brains have already imploded.

All crises aside, however, consider these routine Electoral College injustices: Democrats who live in states such as Texas and Alabama, and Republicans who live in states such as New York and California, are essentially doomed to cast meaningless votes, because the odds are overwhelming that their candidates will never win statewide. Only the "swing state" citizens get to feel important at election time — which explains, for instance, why candidates typically lavish far more attention on, say, the Cuban-Americans in southern Florida than on the high-tech workers in Massachusetts.

The first principle of democracy is that all votes should be equal. But if you live in a state where the outcome seems foreordained, why bother to vote? I took a few blue-state samplings. Everybody knew that Obama would beat John McCain in California; the state’s turnout was down 250,000 from 2004. New York had 400,000 fewer voters than in 2004. Oregon was down by 130,000. Washington state was down by 200,000.

The big states, whether red or blue, get shortchanged anyway — thanks to the political deal hatched by the Founders to augment rural clout. For instance, Wyoming, with 515,000 people, gets three electors (equal to two senators and one House member), while Pennsylvania, with 12.4 million people, gets 21 electors (equal to two senators and 19 House members). Do the math: That’s 172,000 people for each Wyoming elector, and 592,000 people for each Pennsylvania elector (and 582,000 people for each New Jersey elector). These disparities, which are replicated all over the map, violate the Supreme Court-endorsed principle of one person, one vote.

Nor does the College seem consistent with a 21st-century, colorblind society. The original deal was cut partly to mollify Southerners seeking to protect slavery, who feared domination by the more populous North under popular-vote elections. Somehow that doesn't seem like a legacy we should want to perpetuate.

James Madison, in his writings, candidly acknowledged what was going on: "States were divided into different interests not by their difference in size but by other circumstances...principally from (their effects of) having or not having slaves." Madison wrote that many of the Founders liked the popular-vote concept, but that the slave-holding states did not - because they had fewer voters than the slave-free states. In the end, Madison recounted, "the substitution of electors obviated this difficulty."

Indeed, they had to find a way to artificially hike the number of southern electors. The final plan was ingenious. Each state's roster of electors was equal in size to its congressional delegation; the size of a state's congressional delegation was determined by the state’s population (plus two senators apiece); and - most importantly - each southern state was permitted to boost its population by tallying its disenfranchised slaves. The truly creative part was that each slave, for purposes of the tally, was judged to be 60 percent of a person.

So. Now that we have advanced in our history to the point of recognizing African Americans as whole people - while electing one of their own to the presidency - maybe it’s time to talk about Electoral College reform.

In fact, some smart reformers have figured out a way to elect presidents by popular vote without even amending the Constitution. You’re probably not aware of this three-year-old campaign — detailed at nationalpopularvote.com — but it’s worth noting that four states, including New Jersey, have already enacted laws to make it a reality. The states are being lobbied to pass laws requiring their electors to ratify the winner of the national popular vote. It's that simple.

In other words, the Electoral College would be reduced to a purely ceremonial role, much like the British monarchy. And this idea is constitutional, because the Founders, in Article II, merely stated that each state shall "appoint" electors "in such Manner as the Legislature may direct." In other words, the Founders gave the state chambers total leeway to determine how their electors should vote. There isn't a single word in the Constitution requiring that electors follow the longstanding practice of awarding all their votes to the winner of the state tally.

If a national popular-vote plan was enacted, all kinds of new campaign scenarios would open up. Right now, for instance, a Democratic candidate has no incentive to stump for votes in Texas. But under a popular vote system, Texas Democratic voters would actually have value; a Democratic candidate would recognize the value of campaigning in cities like Austin and San Antonio, with the goal of driving up turnout and adding the maximum number of Texas Democrats to the national vote tally.

And it would be the same deal for the GOP. Right now, it's a waste of time for a Republican to stump in California, because the Republican-rich suburbs and towns (located, for example, in the so-called Inland Empire southeast of Los Angeles) are trumped by the more populous Democratic communities. But if the candidate's goal was simply to maximize the national popular tally, those California Republicans would get a lot more attention and feel that their votes actually had some meaning.      

More than 40 states currently have reform bills in the hopper, so maybe there’s a reason to hope, despite our longstanding institutional inertia. In the words of one national magazine, "the very tempo and tone of U.S. democracy demand reform. Direct popular election of the president is the next logical step."

That passage appeared in Time magazine on Sept. 20, 1968 — 40 years ago. We dropouts are still waiting.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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