Will States Topple Electoral College?
First it was the presidential primary calendar that state legislatures across the country upended to give their voters a greater say this year in choosing candidates. Now a few states are orchestrating an overhaul of the way voters select the U.S. president.
Voters this fall will still use the Electoral College to determine the next occupant of the White House, but a movement is bubbling at the state level to bypass the process and instead ensure future presidents are the candidates who get the most votes nationwide – an outcome not always guaranteed under the current system.
Maryland last year became the first state to approve a “national popular vote” compact that would allocate all of its 10 electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide, rather than to the candidate who garners the most votes in the state, as is the case under the Electoral College.
New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois have since followed suit and passed laws that would allot their collective 40 electoral votes the same way. Identical bills are moving in Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island, which have a total of 62 electoral votes.
These bills do nothing on their own and would take effect only when states that collectively have at least 270 electoral votes pass identical measures, since a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Those who remember their history classes know that American voters don’t directly elect a president – states do through “electors” who typically vote for the candidate who drew the most votes in their state.
“Why are all the other elections in this country based on the popular vote except for the most important one, the presidency?” asks Barry F. Fadem, president of the National Popular Vote, a group based in California that aims to persuade state legislatures to implement a nationwide popular election of the president. He called today’s system “flat-out, wrong” and expressed optimism that enough states will pass the legislation in time for the 2012 presidential election.
National Popular Vote was launched in 2006 and is largely funded by its chairman, John R. Koza, a scientist best known for inventing the rub-off instant lottery ticket used by state lotteries and his work in genetic programming at Stanford University. In the 1980s, he and Fadem, an attorney, were active in promoting adoption of lotteries in the states.
Fadem and his supporters say that such a system would make every vote matter, not just those in “battleground states,” while critics argue that the approach is an end-run around the U.S. Constitution and wouldn’t necessarily be more fair than today’s arrangement.
John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government in Washington, D.C., called the National Popular Vote campaign a “novel gimmick” that he said is “asking for a mess” if enacted.
Calls to reform or abolish the Electoral College were common after the 2000 presidential election, when former Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote, but didn’t have enough votes in the right states to carry the electoral vote over Republican George W. Bush. While Bush won the popular vote in 2004, he could have lost the election if John Kerry (D) had won Ohio.
Despite the hand-wringing over what many call an obsolete election system, little has happened, largely because dumping the Electoral College means changing the U.S. Constitution, an arduous task that requires two-thirds approval of Congress and three-fourths of the states. The National Popular Vote would keep the Electoral College, but change the way electoral votes are awarded.
The way Fadem sees it, a national popular vote would generate the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm seen in the recent primaries because all states – and their voters – would matter.
Under the current system, candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, or pay attention to the concerns of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind, Fadem said. For example, presidential nominees have long ignored California because the state is considered a solid “blue” state that will award its 55 electoral votes to the Democratic candidate.
Gary Gregg II, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and a fan of the Electoral College, agrees that the National Popular Vote would change the way candidates campaign, but not in a good way. Candidates would go where most of the votes are, namely cities. “Rural areas would never see a presidential candidate. Small states would never see a presidential candidate,” he said.
Gregg also predicted chaos if there were a close election and candidates challenged the vote count. “You would have the  Florida recount replayed across the country … It would be a very ugly situation.”
Even some supporters of using the popular vote to elect the president have problems with the National Popular Vote’s campaign. “They are trying to circumvent the U.S. Constitution,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of the political science at the University of Kansas, who advocates changing the system but by having Congress and the states debate the issue and amend the U.S. Constitution.
Fadem says his group is not thumbing its nose at the Constitution since states still would have their right to decide how to allocate their electoral votes.
Supporters also reject critics’ characterization that backers of the National Popular Vote are Democrats who are bitter about the 2000 elections.
“It’s not a partisan issue. This isn’t about electing a Democrat president, but electing a president democratically,” said Jamie Raskin, a Democratic state senator in Maryland, reiterating what he said when he introduced the National Popular Vote plan that was signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) last April. Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C, spoke to Stateline.org from Massachusetts, where he was discussing the measure with state lawmakers there.
But three Republican governors vetoed the bill when it landed on their desks. In his veto message, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “It disregards the will of a majority of Californians,” pointing out that the state’s electoral votes under the new system could be awarded to a candidate most Californians didn’t vote for. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle voiced the same concern when she vetoed the bill twice, but this year, lawmakers overrode her objection. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas last month rejected the measure, saying it would decrease the influence of small states, like Vermont.
Cato’s Samples said he wonders if voters who support the concept of a popular vote really understand how it would operate. “Do people in Maryland know under the National Popular Voter system, that their vote may go to someone who didn’t win their state?”
Still, despite the concerns of the National Popular Vote approach, even their critics give the group kudos for bringing the issue to the attention of voters and elected officials. “They are doing a service … We ought to be talking about this,” said Loomis of the University of Kansas.
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