Representative Democracy: Two Steps Forward

John Burbank // Published May 13, 2009 in The Daily Herald
Our state legislators spent most of their time bemoaning the economy and the deficit, and undermining public services this year. But even amid the wreckage, they managed to strengthen the representative democracy that we claim to be. One new law will eventually guarantee that the elected president of the United States is the candidate who receives the most votes. Another will enfranchise citizens now excluded from voting.

Our presidential campaigns have been distorted by the Electoral College. This mechanism is an artifact of a country born both embracing and strongly suspicious of representative democracy. So instead of the people directly electing the president of the United States, each state government was given the right to determine its preference for president, and then representatives of each state would convene as the Electoral College to determine the winner.

For the most part, this obscure pathway for deciding who should be the most powerful global leader has corresponded with actual popular votes. That is, whoever wins the popular vote is usually the winner of the Electoral College count. But occasionally this doesn't work out and the actual loser in the election is the winner in the Electoral College.

Sometimes the upside-down results are not so good. In 1876, the loser of the election, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the Electoral College. The negotiations for this victory depended on the agreement to pull all Federal troops out of the South, ending Reconstruction, and paving the way for 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation. In 2000, we had our own non-election for president. Al Gore's margin of victory over George Bush was more than half a million votes. But because Bush gained the majority of Electoral College votes, he became the president.

This Electoral College conundrum creates other problems. It tends to concentrate campaigning in large "swing" states, ignoring rural areas and states which are "safe" for one candidate or another. It has effectively disenfranchised Republican voters in our state, with our track record of voting for the Democratic nominee for the past six presidential elections. What's the point of voting if you know that your vote won't make a difference?

So some ingenious people have devised state legislation to enable states to join a compact whereby they cast their Electoral College votes for the winner of the nationwide popular vote. The compact won't take effect until it is put into law in states that control more than 50 percent of the votes of the Electoral College. Once that happens, those states will cast all of their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote, thereby ensuring that the voters of our country actually elect our president.

In our state, Sens. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, sponsored our state's compact for a national popular vote. It passed in surprisingly close votes, 28-21 in the Senate and 52-42 in the House, with many Democrats joining Republicans in opposition. Think about that: 63 legislators voted to allow a practice that sometimes, and at some very important times, leaves the winner of the popular vote on the sidelines, while the loser assumes presidency.

Our state now joins Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii in putting this compact into law. Once other states follow our lead, every vote for president will count. The states that have already put the compact into law make up almost of quarter of the electoral votes needed to activate this compact and ensure that every election in the future results in the popular election of the president.

Back in February I wrote about an implicit poll tax on rehabilitated ex-felons that prevented the vast majority of them -- well over 150,000 -- from voting. The Legislature finally did something about this. Reps. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, and Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, sponsored legislation to restore voting rights to people released from prison and no longer under community supervision. They still have to pay off court-mandated attorney fees, defense costs, victim restitution fees and collection fees. But they get to vote while they are paying off the fees. That only makes sense, in a society committed to a democracy inclusive of all citizens.



John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org ), writes every other Wednesday. Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is [email protected]