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The times, they may be a-changin'

Published: Monday, October 16, 2006

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 13:08


On Nov. 2, 2004, over five and a half million citizens of California voted to give George W. Bush a second presidential term. Among their number were lawyers, CEOs, retirees and students; one of them was the governor. They outnumbered the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware and Montana combined, and the sum of their bank accounts could probably have purchased several small countries. They mailed ballots and assembled at polls in order to support the most powerful man in the world on what may have been the single most important day of his life.

And what did these 5,509,826 taxpayers get for their trouble? Not one of their state's 55 electors honored their effort with a vote. Neither Bush nor Vice President Cheney made any substantive effort to thank those amongst them who had not written triple-digit checks; indeed, the candidates had not even made more than one or two public appearances in California, the Union's most populous state, during the 150-plus events that constituted their campaign.

Bush had shown great public interest in helping Iraqis vote for a representative government but was utterly silent when five and a half million voters of the world's most powerful country were all but disenfranchised.

Such is the curse of the so-called Electoral College, which in 2004 not only afflicted the aforementioned Californians but 2,832,704 Texas Democrats and 5,309,175 Republicans in New York and Illinois. Ninety-nine percent of the advertising money spent by both the Bush and Kerry campaigns was purchased in 17 states, of which only one (Florida) ranks as one of the nation's five most populous states.

The Electoral College, an historical oddity which was created but not named by the U.S. Constitution, continues to select presidents in a manner that is an antiquated cancer on our republic. The body cannot be disbanded without modification to the Constitution, which practice has shown would never pass the three-fourths muster of state legislatures necessary for an amendment. But the College can be reformed, and it should be.

This is the aim of the National Popular Vote Campaign, which aims to ensure that presidential candidates who win most Americans' votes necessarily win the White House.

How?

Briefly, the campaign, whose Web site is NationalPopularVote.com, seeks to persuade states to exercise their constitutionally sanctioned right to appoint presidential electors in whatever manner they see fit by agreeing to allocate those electors to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of their own state's returns. These laws would not take effect, however, until enough states had joined to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote would indeed win the election. (A more detailed, yet admirably succinct summary can be found in Hendrik Hertzberg's Feb. 27 New Yorker piece, "Count 'Em").

This form of legal perquisite - commonly known as a "trigger law" - invites states to join this Interstate Compact at their own leisure, and thus gives the campaign a credible claim to being the first ever feasible effort to reform the College.

While it is true that not every American (my good friend Seth, included) favors scrapping the current state-by-state presidential election system in favor of a national popular vote, a 2004 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans favored such a change, a percentage that has remained roughly the same for over 60 years. To put that number into a presidential perspective, President Reagan's 1984 re-election win, accomplished with just under 60 percent of the national popular vote, was deemed a nearly unparalleled landslide - and yet Reagan's ticket was less popular then than the prospect of reforming the Electoral College is today.

First assembled this past February, the National Popular Vote Campaign is now lobbying state representatives on behalf of its Interstate Compact. This past summer, both houses of the California Legislature passed the bill, only to have it woefully vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, one of the many citizens whose presidential vote was ignored two Novembers ago. The rookie governor said that to sign the bill would dishonor states' rights, mechanically ignoring the ludicrousness of the notion that a decision undertaken by a state (and withdrawable by that same state) could somehow abridge its own authority.

I believe that a likelier reason for Schwarzenegger's veto was pressure from GOP insiders. The Karl Roves of the nation must delight in running 17-state presidential campaigns, and surely salivate at the thought of using polling-sharpened scalpels to whittle that number further.

And why not? It's both cheaper and easier to lie to a fraction of the country while gorging the media on a state-by-state circus than it is to run an honest national contest.

Not coincidentally, Gallup Brain reports that 80 percent, "the greatest level of support" ever recorded for a national popular vote, came after Richard Nixon won his first presidential term in 1968. In that election, Nixon won 20% more of the electoral votes than his Democratic rival despite a mere 0.4% popular vote lead. If that 80 percent of Americans doesn't constitute buyer's remorse, I don't know what does.

So enough with the Bushes and the Nixons that blemish the often great history of this, our world's mightiest nation. For the first time in the history of our republic, a national popular vote for president may be attainable.

In the next few weeks, I and a group of fellow Jumbos may lobby Massachusetts representatives on behalf of the Compact, as the Bay State with its 12 electoral votes is a natural target for the 270 electors needed to enact this vital reform. If you would like to add your voice to the effort, e-mail me or join the Facebook.com group, "National Popular Vote for Massachusetts," and I will keep you informed.

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