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The Popular Vote

// Published January 19, 2008 in The Daily Freeman
There is an innovative movement afoot to make the election of the president of the United States a popular affair.

As in, whoever gets the most votes wins.

What a radical concept!

Supporters are urging states to commit to a compact by which each state would agree to direct their Electoral College voters to cast their presidential votes for who won the overall national popular vote, not necessarily for who won the state contest.

The interstate compact would take effect as soon as enough states to constitute a majority of votes in the Electoral College have joined.

New Jersey this month joined Maryland as the only states to commit to the idea, but at least one legislative chamber in six other states have passed similar legislation and bills have been introduced in numerous other state legislatures across the nation.

Such a bill has been introduced the past couple of years in the New York state Assembly, but with no companion bill in the state Senate, making it an effective dead letter.

It is hard to argue with the basic premise of the initiative. All American elections, including the presidency, ought to be decided by who gets the most votes, not by an arcane system of state-by-state votes.

Supporters of the initiative say making every vote count would make all states a competitive battleground for the presidency and, therefore, part of the great national discussion of issues.

Opponents say it is an end-run around the Constitution.

That's too bad. For one thing, it's not really an end-run around the Constitution, since the Founding Fathers pretty much left it to the states to decide the mechanism for delivering their electoral votes.

For another, the opposition disparages a creative, yet sincere, effort to deliver what one political scientist characterizes as "a system that reflects public preferences."

In truth, the initiative recognizes the basic unfairness of the current system, which effectively writes a huge number of states - and, therefore, voters - out of what should be a great national contest. According to FairVote, a voting rights organization, only 13 states, representing a mere 159 of the total 538 electoral votes, were considered "in play" in the 2004 presidential election. That is, the election was contested in and decided by those states and their voters.

The rest, effectively, be damned.

And you can be assured that New York is one of the damned. If the Empire State isn't safely in the pocket of the Democratic presidential candidate, he or she doesn't have a chance of winning. That's unfair to all New York voters who want their votes to count, but especially to those who do not vote for the Democratic candidate. Why shouldn't their vote count as much as any American's?

Opponents of the initiative are in the strange position of standing on what they wrongly perceive to be principle in the service of an archaic, unpopular - truly, undemocratic - system.

Failing a constitutional amendment to mandate the race be decided by popular vote, this is an initiative that deserves the support of New York.