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Let every vote count

Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 08:04



This year, Election Day for President is on Nov. 6, 2012, right? Wrong, or at least partially so. Election Day for President is really Dec. 17, 2012, when presidential electors will gather at state houses across the nation and cast the only votes that count — electoral votes. We the people don’t actually vote for the president — or even have the right to do so. It’s time we changed that.

The Electoral College as it functions today is both outmoded and deeply undemocratic, with its historical roots in slavery. At the dawn of the nation, only white men with property could vote. As the aristocrats gathered to write the Constitution, southern states insisted in counting their slaves as three−fifths of a person for the purpose of determining both the number of congressional districts and the number of presidential electors. They simply wouldn’t agree to the Union any other way. With a popular vote, northern states would have selected significantly more Presidents.

While the Three−Fifths Compromise is long gone, the practical implications of how Presidential Electors are selected today are still an affront to democracy. Rather than the nation as a whole selecting the president, a handful of battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania decide the election, while voters in two−thirds of the country who live in “safe” states essentially have no role. Even with the unprecedented involvement in the 2008 election, 54 percent of the ads and 57 percent of the visits took place in four states, and 98 percent in just 15 states. The data were even more concentrated in 2004 and in 2000.

Voters in “spectator” states, including Massachusetts, that were safely colored red or blue, just didn’t count. Why? Because the vast majority of states use the winner−take−all system for awarding electors. Under this practice, all of a state’s electors go to the winner of that single state, whether he or she wins by one vote or by 1 million votes. Accordingly, candidates avoid those states where they cannot possibly win or where they cannot possibly lose. Margin does not matter.

Therefore, the election is held only in states where the electorate is evenly balanced — sadly only about 15 states — with the vast majority of the campaign in only six to eight states. With the perpetual campaigns of the 21st Century it is not only in the election but also during governing that these implications are felt. Sitting presidents travel to battleground states at significantly higher rates, disaster declarations are declared twice as often in battlegrounds for similar events and policy decisions can be warped by these political concerns.

Even more problematically, the candidate who loses the popular vote can be elected president — a scenario that played out in 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824. That’s one in every fourteen Presidential elections. Near misses are even more frequent. In five of the last twelve races, a flip of a few thousand votes in only one or two states would have elected the loser. This decreases the legitimacy of the process and turns off voters.

Constitutional amendments to eliminate the Electoral College have come very close to passing on a number of occasions. On the most recent occasion in 1969, an amendment passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin. But because an amendment also requires a two−thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and then ratification by three−quarters of the states, it is a virtual impossibility. Luckily, a constitutional amendment is not necessary.

Contrary to popular belief, the Constitution and the founders gave the States complete authority to determine how presidential electors are allocated. The framers of the Constitution purposely built flexibility into their plan because they were conflicted about how the system should work and concerned about the balance of power between the federal government and the States. Various methods have been used by states over the years. Electors have been chosen by direct ballot without binding their support to a presidential candidate. Other electors have been appointed by state legislators, elected statewide in winner−take−all slates, or elected by congressional district, as is currently the case in all but Maine and Nebraska. Massachusetts has changed its selection process 11 times.

Now, a different concept that draws upon the authority granted to the states by the Constitution (Article II, Section 1) is gaining momentum. The “National Popular Vote” legislation uses this authority, paired with another clause in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 10) that enables states to enter into legally enforceable joint agreements, to reframe our system to elect the president with the highest popular vote total in all 50 states.

Under “National Popular Vote,” states pass identical enabling legislation to establish this agreement. But it will only take effect when enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of the Electoral College or 270 of the 538 electoral votes. That is roughly equal to half of the population, most likely around 25 states. These states agree to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, thereby guaranteeing the popular vote winner a supermajority in the Electoral College.

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