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Albatross of U.S. democracy

Fran Quigley // Published July 13, 2009 in Indianapolis Star

An important world power is conducting fundamentally flawed elections for its highest office.

This country's president is chosen not by virtue of the popular vote, but by political elites who meet weeks after the polls close. Just nine years ago, this system resulted in a reversal of the popular vote result, as it had three times previously.

The country in question is not Iran, Russia or some banana republic. It is the U.S., still dragging around the molting albatross of American democracy, the Electoral College.

Was Barack Obama elected president Nov. 4 by 63 million voters? No. As students of civics trivia know, Obama was legally elected on Dec. 15 by 365 electors who could have ignored their states' popular votes.

But it is hardly trivial that the Electoral College, with its tainted roots reaching back to compromises made to appease slave-holding states, is fundamentally anti-democratic.

It is a system that leads to the majority of the nation's voters being virtually ignored during the general election campaign. Ten "battleground" states hosted 90 percent of the late campaign events in 2008, with the predictable result of voter turnout being significantly lower in states deemed "safe" for one party or the other.

It is a system that is hard to defend, explaining why Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush both cast House votes in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, and a bipartisan group of current and former lawmakers still lobby for a switch to the popular vote.

At first glance, it seems an inauspicious time to eliminate the Electoral College. Obama was a clear winner in both the popular and electoral votes, and Indiana was politically relevant in a presidential election for the first time in 40 years.

But an analysis by the group Fair Vote shows that Hoosiers were lucky exceptions in 2008, as more states are moving toward becoming "spectator" states in future presidential elections.

Fair Vote and parallel organization National Popular Vote are leading an ingenious challenge to this trend. Five states -- Washington, Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii and New Jersey -- have all pledged to award their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote, if states representing a majority of the electors do the same.

Similar legislation has been proposed in nearly every other state, including Indiana, where Reps. Matt Pierce and Dale Grubb introduced it as recently as 2007.

The effect would be to make the winner of the popular vote our president, which doesn't seem too radical given that is the way we choose our governors, senators and mayors. The approach is both legal -- the Constitution gives the states discretion in determining how their electors are directed -- and wise.

Every vote cast for president should be equally important and equally coveted, whether it originates in California, Connecticut or Crawfordsville. Last year, Hoosier voters finally learned what it felt like to be relevant in a presidential election campaign.

Wouldn't it be nice for all Americans to have that feeling every four years?