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State's electoral votes may end up playing hard to get

Sara Sunshine // Published July 21, 2008 in The Brown Daily Herald
 Local activists and state legislators want the popular vote to determine how electors are awarded in November.

The National Popular Vote Bill is part of a state-by-state effort to ensure the winner of the national popular vote for president wins the election.

On June 20, the State House of Representatives passed the bill, which had been approved by the State Senate in late May. Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 vetoed the bill on July 2, calling the bill an attempt to "subvert the Constitution" in a press release.

The bill is based on each state's right to allocate electoral votes however it sees fit. Currently, states either allocate all of their electoral votes to the winner of their state, or allocate their electoral votes by region.

If the bill were enacted, Rhode Island would pledge all electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in the presidential election. The bill is designed to take effect only after enough states have passed it to ensure the 270 electoral votes needed for an Electoral College majority, effectively awarding the election to whoever receives the most votes.

At the moment, the National Popular Vote bill has been enacted in four states: Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey. The bill has been introduced into 47 state legislatures, passing 20, said Ari Savitzky '06, the director of FairVote Rhode Island, an organization lobbying for the bill's passage in the Ocean State.

The movement also enjoys significant popular support. A Providence Journal poll conducted in early June showed 74 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of the bill, mirroring results reported in other states.

Still, the bill has been controversial. Although it passed comfortably in the Senate, the House vote was a narrow 36-34.

Proponents of the bill argue that an electoral system based on popular vote is more democratic. Currently, the mathematical ratio of each state's electoral votes to its population is not uniform across the country, meaning that the number of electoral votes awarded per person in Wyoming is almost four times greater than in New York.

A national popular vote would also prevent a situation similar to the 2000 election, when candidate Al Gore received half a million votes more than his opponent, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and lost because he had fewer electoral votes.

Savitzky, who is also a former Herald opinions editor, said a national popular vote would give candidates, who currently focus the majority of their efforts in a small number of swing states, "incentive to campaign everywhere."

A national popular vote would also be "extremely empowering to local voters," Savitsky said, because it encourages more political activism. Many Americans living in states like Rhode Island - which generally leans strongly Democratic - would see a renewed interest in public debate, he added

"Right now in Rhode Island, if you want to affect the election, you drive to New Hampshire," Savitzky said. But the protracted 2008 primary battle changed that, he added.

"Because of this Democratic primary, a lot of states that hadn't been campaigned in a while got a taste of what it feels like to matter," Savitzky said. "It was incredibly exciting."

But not everyone thinks a national popular vote is a good idea. In his veto message, Carcieri said the bill was "an attempt to eviscerate the Electoral College and subvert the Constitution of the United States."

Changing the state-based electoral system could make elections less democratic, said Carroll Andrew Morse, who writes for Anchor Rising, a conservative Rhode Island blog. The candidates would not spread the focus of their campaign, he said, but "someone like George W. Bush would have concentrated on ramping up his big turn-out machine that he had established in Texas."

A national popular vote would "diminish small state influence" and augment the importance of the densely populated California and other such states, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science.

Because the less populous states generally tend to vote Republican, there is a partisan aspect to this issue, said Schiller. The Providence Journal poll showed only 35 percent of conservative Republicans favored the National Popular Vote bill, as opposed to 86 percent of liberal Democrats who supported it.

However, Savitzky said the National Popular Vote bill enjoys support across the political spectrum, including from a reported 63 percent of moderate Republicans. "People talk about blue states and red states. We're the United States of America, and ... that is the way we should elect the president," he said.

Such sentiments hold little appeal for some conservaties including Morse, who said he thinks a national popular vote is simply unconstitutional - specifically in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's clause regarding state representatives.

Schiller, meanwhile, said that view merely supports the fact that a constitutional amendment would be required to change the electoral system. The National Popular Vote bill is "a signal to Congress that there's support in the states," she said.

There are other mechanical problems with a national popular vote, Schiller said. Recounts would be "almost impossible" and "it's unclear who would supervise and certify these elections."

Savitzky said that the National Popular Vote bill is completely constitutional, pointing out that the states were granted "complete and plenary power" over their electors.

"If you talk about what the founders' intent was or what the framework of the Constitution is ... it's very clear that the states have complete power to enter into a compact like this."

"The words 'The Electoral College' do not appear in the United States Constitution," Savitzky added.

It is unclear what the fate of National Popular Vote bill will be in Rhode Island.

Savitzky said FairVote will not be giving up, pulling for another vote to attempt to override Carcieri's veto.

"From (Carcieri's) veto message, it seems like not only did he not read the bill, he didn't read the U.S. Constitution. It displayed no understanding of the compact and what it does, or of the wishes of Rhode Islanders."