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A fix for the Electoral College

// Published February 18, 2008 in The Boston Globe
THE ELECTORAL College has a pernicious effect on American politics, and not just because every now and then someone wins the presidency even after losing the popular vote. Enshrined in the Constitution, the system divides the presidential election into 50 state contests - relatively few of which are competitive, because most states tilt predictably toward one party. Candidates target their campaigns to the concerns of a small number of swing states, and voters in other states have less incentive to turn out.

One clever way to fix this problem is a proposal called National Popular Vote. The Constitution lets states decide how to choose their electors, and nearly every state now gives all its electors to the winner of the popular vote in that state. (Maine and Nebraska, in theory, can split their votes.) States that adopt National Popular Vote laws would instead pledge their electoral votes to whoever gets the most votes nationwide. The pact would take effect only when adopted by states with a total of 270 or more electoral votes - a majority of the Electoral College. New Jersey and Maryland have already signed on.

Massachusetts should follow suit. The measure has already passed the Committee on Election Laws, and deserves to be adopted. Local backers of the measure, such as the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, hope that the reform would boost voter participation.

The most direct solution would be a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College. But that is unlikely to happen; an amendment could be blocked by the 13 smallest states, whose electoral power is magnified under the present system.

To be sure, the National Popular Vote plan is a long shot as well, and it has its skeptics. Secretary of State William Galvin says he too would like to change the current system but thinks the proposed legislation is unlikely to pass in enough states. He also says it could "open the door to mischief" - perhaps in the form of competing proposals to adjust the way states choose their electors. He notes that California Republicans recently tried to get that reliably Democratic megastate's electoral votes allocated by congressional district.

But the benefits are worth the risk. Earlier this month, Massachusetts voters got a taste of what it feels like to count in the presidential race. And how refreshing it was! In previous campaigns, the state's presidential primaries came too late to affect the outcome of the major parties' nomination battles, and the inclination to vote Democratic in November meant that its electoral votes were rarely in play. This year was different. Confronted on Feb. 5 with competitive Democratic and Republican races - and the possibility that the outcome in Massachusetts might influence the results for once - the electorate turned out in record numbers. Voters in every state deserve the same opportunity in all presidential elections.