The push for a popular vote

Scot Lehigh // Published July 9, 2008

THIS MONTH, the Massachusetts Legislature can help nudge the nation into the modern age by taking a stand in favor of a national popular vote for president - and against that most antiquated of arrangements, the Electoral College.

After hesitating last week, the House today will take up a clever proposal to institute a national popular vote - a plan that could take effect without having to amend the Constitution.

The state's House speaker and Senate president both back the measure; yesterday Governor Deval Patrick said he supports the objective, but wants more time to study the legislation itself.

Here's how the plan would work. As allowed in the Constitution, individual states would pass legislation to join an interstate compact, one whose members agree to award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. When enough states join to bring the electoral vote total to 270 - the number needed to elect a president - the compact would go into effect.

That obviously won't happen this year, but it very well could by 2012.

So far, the proposal has become law in Illinois (21 electoral votes) New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), and Hawaii (4).

It's again on the desk of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has previously cast a veto. The legislation also recently passed in Rhode Island and Vermont, though in both states, Republican governors vetoed it.

Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri charged that the legislation would "subvert the Constitution of the United States." Vermont Governor Jim Douglas worried that moving to a national popular vote would diminish the voice of small states like Vermont in national politics.

Carcieri's objection is clearly wide of the mark. "This proposal has been reviewed by constitutional law experts throughout the country, and not a single one that I am aware of has found it to be deficient in any way," says Barry Fadem, president of National Popular Vote.

Having reviewed the legal analysis, "I believe the proposed bill fully complies with the United States Constitution and all relevant federal laws," former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger, past president of Common Cause (which advocates for the idea), wrote to state legislators.

As for Douglas's argument, at least two-thirds of the states currently get little or no attention from presidential candidates - and that's particularly true of the smaller states.

"[U]nder the current system, running for president means just one thing: focus on the so-called swing states," former governor Michael Dukakis said in a letter to legislators. "I did it. Al Gore did it. John Kerry did it, and our Republican opponents did it, too. . . . Only winning the swing states matters, and presidential candidates are under tremendous pressure to embrace issues and positions that will resonate in those few states."

Meanwhile, voters who live in predictably Republican states like Texas or Indiana or Utah or predictably Democratic states like Massachusetts or Rhode Island or Vermont are virtually ignored because of a simple reality: No amount of time or money is likely to pull that state's electoral votes into the opposing party's column.

Moving to a national vote would change that skewed focus; winning an extra vote here would matter just as much as it would in, say, Ohio.

Yes, population centers will remain magnets for campaigning, but overall, a national vote would certainly bring about a broader campaign - that is, one that includes more states in a meaningful way - and not a narrower one.

It would also end the kind of democratic dysfunction we have suffered four times in our history: a candidate who becomes president despite losing the popular vote. And though some fret about the possibility of an exhausting nationwide recount, it's the current system of 50 state elections for president that actually increases the odds of a recount-close margin somewhere.

But what if the law of unintended consequences rears its head to unfortunate result in a future election? Well, then, states could easily withdraw from the compact; if enough did, the nation would return to the Electoral College.

This is an idea that makes good sense. Massachusetts should lend support and momentum to a national popular vote.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is [email protected].

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