Kevin Frisch: Electoral College dropouts

Kevin Frisch

New York is halfway to joining a national initiative to circumvent the mechanism through which presidents are elected in the United States — and, once in awhile, miselected.

The state Senate voted 51-7 last week to enter an interstate agreement to elect the president by a popular vote. Doing so would render superfluous a constitutional quirk, the Electoral College.

Presidents are elected not by the nation’s tens of millions of voters, but by its 538 electors. Just ask Al Gore, who won the popular vote by half a million in 2000. And in an example of He Who Lives by the Electoral College Almost Dying by the Electoral College, George W. Bush nearly suffered the same fate in 2004; despite his 3.5 million vote lead, had there been a 60,000-vote swing in Ohio, he would have lost the state and the election.

Who are John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison? I’ll take “Presidents Other Than George W. Bush Who Were Elected Without Winning the Popular Vote,” Alex.

Majority-winning losers aside, knowing that a state’s electoral votes are pretty much spoken for (this is what makes Texas red and New York blue), can inhibit voter turnout.

All of which has led to the National Popular Vote initiative. (Think of it as a Tea Party movement with purpose instead of placards.)

The idea is for states to agree to award their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote — not just in their own state but nationwide. So far, five states controlling 61 electoral votes have passed legislation: Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington. The bill wouldn’t take effect, however, until enough states sign on to total the 270 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election.

Now, I’m not big on tinkering with the Constitution. It is, after all, one of the three most important documents in American history, along with the Declaration of Independence and my divorce settlement.

But it turns out the Electoral College wasn’t the Constitution’s strongest feature. We made it as far as the election of 1800 before it led to a hopelessly deadlocked tie of electors in the House of Representatives, and required revising (via the 12th Amendment).

Plus, it was instituted partly to accommodate slavery. Slaves, who couldn’t vote, were allowed to be counted when electoral votes were apportioned (as three-fifths of a person, in a Founding Fathers version of adding insult to injury). Changing the elections process, then, wouldn’t exactly be meddling with a sacrosanct element of the Constitution.

So, by taking a step toward direct election of presidents, the New York State Senate is taking a step toward greater democracy, right? Please! This is the New York State Senate; they’re taking a step toward money.

Another element of the Electoral College is that if a candidate is a shoo-in (as Barack Obama was in New York in 2008) or, conversely, a shoo-out (as John McCain was in New York in 2008), there’s no real incentive for him to campaign in that state. In 2004, presidential candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in just five states. And New York wasn’t one of them.

In other words, this is an example of the interests of small-d democracy aligning with those of big-D Dollars.

Fiduciary considerations aside, electing presidents via a true popular vote simply seems fairer. It would have saved the nation a lot turmoil back in the fall of 2000. It would have saved Reconstruction in the South, which was diluted in the Compromise of 1877, a deal designed to settle the disputed 1876 election.

And it would have saved at least one life. During that 1800 deadlock in the House, Alexander Hamilton used his influence to secure — on the 36th ballot — the presidential election for Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. Four years later, Burr made his displeasure known by killing Hamilton in a duel.

If only there had been a National Popular Vote initiative.

ContactMessenger managing editor Kevin Frisch at (585) 394-0770, ext. 257, or via e-mail at