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A better way to elect a president

Scot Lehigh // Published May 6, 2008 in Boston Globe
IF THERE'S one constitutional idea whose time has come and gone, it's the Electoral College.

That arrangement for electing a president is a throwback to a different age, designed as a solution to circumstances that no longer exist.

But the antique system continues to present problems of its own.

Consider just two:

First, it poses the regular danger of a president who wins the Electoral College but not the popular vote, depriving the country of a chief executive who is viewed as fully legitimate.

That, of course, happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the national vote, but George W. Bush eventually prevailed in the Electoral College.

But we've had three other elections in which candidates who didn't win the popular vote nevertheless ended up in the White House: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. In the last case, Harrison actually replaced a sitting president, Grover Cleveland; four years later, Cleveland won a rematch.

Second, the Electoral College lends disproportionate general election influence to a handful of swing states, which become pivotal in each and every close election, while much of the rest of the country is neglected.

But trying to amend the constitution is a Herculean task.

That's why the campaign for a national popular vote holds such promise. It's a way of sidestepping the Electoral College without amending the Constitution.

Here's how the plan would work. Individual states pass legislation to join an interstate compact, under which member states will award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. When states representing 270 electoral votes — the number needed to become president — have signed on, the plan goes into effect. Thus it's in the power of state Legislatures and governors to catalyze the move.

So far, the bill has been introduced in 47 states. It has been passed into law in Illinois (21 electoral votes) New Jersey (15), Maryland (10 ), and, just last week, Hawaii (4), and is under active consideration in any number of others. In Massachusetts, the bill has a majority in both the House and the Senate, says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts.

If the plan goes into effect, it would change the nature of campaigns in a big way. Right now, it doesn't matter if a candidate wins a state by 10 votes or 10,000; once you have a majority, every additional vote is essentially wasted. Thus there's little point of campaigning in states that lean strongly for either party.

"Presidential campaigns do not visit, do not run ads, do not care about nonbattleground states," observes Barry Fadem, president of National Popular Vote, the nonprofit organization promoting the idea.

Indeed, according to that group, in the 2004 general election, 99 percent of all the advertisizing money expended on the presidential race was spent in 16 states — with two-thirds of it targeted for just five states.

But in a true national election, that wouldn't be the case. Each vote would count just as much as any other in determining the outcome. That means it would be just as important for a candidate to attract extra votes in a state he or she was already expected to win as it would be to concentrate on a swing state. That is, it would matter just as much for a Democrat or Republican to attract an extra 1,000 votes in Massachusetts, a predictably Democratic state, or in Texas, a predictably Republican state, as it would be to battle for extra votes in a swing state like Ohio.

"Neither political party is going to be able to say, as they have in every other election, we don't care about the following states," says Fadem.

By expanding the effective playing field, a direct national election would also probably change the mix of issues that candidates focus on, with national concerns taking clear precedence over matters dear to populations in the swing states but less vital to voters in other places.

Common Cause thinks a broader campaign would also have the effect of boosting political participation across the country.

Now, this obviously won't happen before the 2008 election, but Fadem's optimistic view is that enough states will join to put it into effect for 2012.

It's a big change, but an outdated arrangement shouldn't govern something as important as presidential elections. It's time we graduated from the Electoral College. This is an idea both Democrats and Republicans should get behind.