Editorial: Make every vote count
From the MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.)
Editors: Note Mass. Reference in final graph; adapt as needed.
There's a simple rule in elections, whether for senior class president or United States Senate: The candidate with the most votes wins. The exception is an important one: President of the United States.
That contradiction ought to be enough for Americans to rethink the Electoral College, a contraption fashioned by the Founders as a political compromise even they weren't enthusiastic about. Recent experience provides more reasons. George W. Bush received more than 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, and things haven't worked out too well. Had just 60,000 votes swung the other way in Ohio, John F. Kerry would have been elected president, despite trailing Bush by more than 3 million votes nationwide.
But the way the Electoral College distorts presidential campaigns is an even greater problem. When it comes to presidential politics, it's not really about red states vs. blue states or large states vs. small states. It's about 17 battleground states vs. the 33 other states that are ignored by the presidential campaigns.
In the last presidential election, 99 percent of presidential campaign cash was spent in the battleground states, and two-thirds of that was spent in a half-dozen states. In Massachusetts and most other states, we are bystanders in a presidential race.
In the weeks before the 2004 election, political activists here spent their weekends knocking on doors in New Hampshire and their evenings calling voters in the Midwest. Democracy is not served when your own vote doesn't count, or where there's no practical advantage in getting your neighbor to the polls.
Attempts to abolish the Electoral College through constitutional amendment have fallen short, both because of the high hurdles in the amendment process and concerns about replacing 50 state elections with one national one. But a better idea has emerged, and is gaining momentum.
The Constitution explicitly leaves it to states to determine how their presidential electors are selected and authorizes ``interstate compacts.'' Under a proposal promoted by a bipartisan group, states could agree to have their electors cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote instead of the candidate that won their state. The compact would only go into effect once states responsible for a majority of electors had joined.
It's a new idea, and one its advocates concede will take some getting used to. So far, we've been unable to come up with any good arguments against it.
There's the old civics lesson that says the Electoral College is needed to protect the interests of the small states, the argument that carried the day when the Constitution was being written in 1787. But just one of the smallest states - New Hampshire - was a battleground state in 2004; having extra electors hasn't helped Rhode Island, North Dakota or Hawaii attract the attention of presidential candidates.
There's the prospect of a national recount, but it's remote. The closest popular vote since 1900 came in 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by 118,000 votes, a far cry from the 535-vote margin Bush racked up in Florida in 2000. There's a kind of loyalty to the Electoral College, but it's misplaced: The EC has never been a vibrant institution. Under this proposal, it would become a rubber stamp for a national election instead of a state election. Big deal.
The strongest objections so far have come from top-level political consultants who know how to run a battleground state campaign but are uncertain how the game would change if every vote in every state carried the same weight. The voters are unconvinced. In fact, polls have consistently registered heavy margins in favor of popular election of presidents since 1944.
Maryland was the first to enact a law committing to the popular vote compact. Proponents expect North Carolina, Illinois and New Jersey to follow this year and predict nine more will enact it in 2008. By then, the presidential candidates will again be spending all their energy on the battleground states, illustrating anew the problem with the current system.
A bill has been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature that would commit us to the popular vote compact, with hearings expected in September and a vote next year. If anyone can come up with a good reason not to join this movement, we'd love to hear it.