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A national popular vote for president

Damon Circosta // Published June 23, 2008 in Salisbury Post
RALEIGH — May 6 was a record-breaking election for North Carolina. Not since Gov. Terry Sanford supported John F. Kennedy in 1960 has our state been such a key player in a presidential contest.

The excitement had voters showing up to the polls in droves. As the news media and pundits reflect on the intensity of our primary election, there is general consensus that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event and the sort of enthusiasm we saw this year may never happen again.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

Every four years, voters in the so-called "swing states" like Ohio and Florida can count on the level of enthusiasm we get only when the stars align like they did this spring. The prospect of casting a meaningful vote for our nation's commander in chief is a powerful incentive to participate.

Time and again we see that in elections where a vote for the president is perceived to matter, voter participation increases.

This session the General Assembly is debating a bill that would give us a real chance to be involved in presidential politics every election. The bill, called the National Popular Vote, would pledge North Carolina's electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide.

The idea is that the presidency should always go to the person who gets the most votes. Under the current system, it is possible for a person to receive fewer votes, but still be elected president. Indeed, this has happened several times in our history. What's more, the current system discourages candidates from running a truly nationwide campaign, instead focusing on the few states that could swing the race in one direction or the other.

North Carolina has not been one of these swing states for quite some time, but as the 10th most populous state, the road to a popular-vote victory would certainly include stops in North Carolina. As presidential candidates campaign in our state, they bring a level of intrigue to our elections that is normally absent. They also bring a much-needed economic boost in the form of television spending as well as lodging and food expenses for all those staffers and media people who come to our state.

We all got to see the benefits of a hotly contested election when the Democratic presidential primary sparked excitement earlier this month. Prior to this May, we had seen a persistent decline in the percentage of voters who participate in our democracy and a steady increase in citizens expressing the sentiment that "my vote doesn't matter." In this most recent round of elections, we saw an unparalleled spike in voter registration and participation.

Political consultants and others who engage in the gamesmanship of presidential politics are wary of the National Popular Vote. They have spent a lifetime gaining expertise in a "swing state" strategy and would prefer that the rules of the game remain the same. They say that the National Popular Vote tries to undermine the Constitution when in actuality the Constitution leaves it to the states to decide the manner in which we pledge our electors. If North Carolina and other like-minded states agree that it is more important to have all Americans decide who becomes the president, not just a few, then the Constitution affords us that right.

In the panoply of reforms that will increase voter participation and give citizens a more immediate sense of the importance of voting, reforming the Electoral College is merely one of them. The National Popular Vote bill is eligible for consideration this session and an excellent way to increase citizen engagement in our democracy.

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Damon Circosta is the director of policy with the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.