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Sidestepping the electoral college

// Published August 18, 2008
Thanks to the electoral college, the United States holds elections in which the candidate who wins the most votes doesn't always win the presidency. Voters in some states matter much more than others, so candidates are encouraged to ignore the concerns of the less important ones and focus on those who really make a difference. That, in turn, tends to lower turnout because many voters believe their input doesn't matter. Is this any way to run a democracy?

The answer might seem obvious to most Americans -- in fact, polls have shown that large majorities in both parties favor reforming the presidential election system. But it's not so obvious to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2006 vetoed a bill that would have rendered the electoral college moot and awarded the presidency to the winner of the national majority vote. The same bill has once again made its way through the Legislature, offering Schwarzenegger the chance to do the right thing.

Four states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey -- have already passed legislation proposed by National Popular Vote, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit founded by a Stanford professor who came up with a brilliant way to circumvent the electoral college. States simply have to agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the majority vote nationwide. This would go into effect only if states controlling more than half the electoral votes sign on. If California, with 55 votes, were to join, it would give a big boost to the national movement.

The only way to do away with the electoral college entirely would be to amend the Constitution, which takes a two-thirds vote of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. There are enough swing states that benefit from the current system, such as Ohio and Florida, to derail any attempt at an amendment. Though the National Popular Vote idea offends constitutional purists, it in no way violates the Constitution, which allows states to allocate their electoral votes any way they wish.

Schwarzenegger's rationale for vetoing the popular-vote bill two years ago was that it disregarded "the will of a majority of Californians" because it could award the state's electoral votes to a candidate the state's voters didn't approve. That's a very odd argument. The state's choice of a candidate is irrelevant if its pick doesn't win elsewhere. Sidestepping the electoral college simply assures that the majority would rule in the presidential race, just as it does in every other election in this country except the one for its highest office. Moreover, it would force candidates to devote far more attention to California, and would enfranchise California Republicans, whose votes currently matter little in this overwhelmingly blue state.

The bill, SB 37 from Sen. Carole Midgen (D-San Francisco), would benefit the state and the nation. Schwarzenegger should sign it.