By Clyde Frazier
Published June 3rd 2007 in Raleigh News & Observer
RALEIGH - If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then the Electoral College is the camel of the American political system. It never worked as the Framers intended; it forces voters to choose electors whose names don't even appear on the ballot; it awards the presidency to some candidates whose opponents got more votes; it leads presidential campaigns to ignore the vast majority of the nation; and it discourages voter turnout.
It's time for a change, as the state Senate acknowledged last month by passing legislation that, if joined by other states, would institute direct popular election of the president.
There has long been overwhelming support for such a change, as much as 80 percent in some polls, but change has been stymied by the daunting requirements of the constitutional amendment process.
Stanford University professor John Koza proposed that states sidestep the obstacles of the amendment process by adopting an interstate compact to award their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes nationally. This approach dramatically reduces the obstacles to change. To take effect it requires only adoption by states comprising a majority of the Electoral College.
There are many reasons that the state House should join the Senate and approve the National Popular Vote Bill. Most obviously, it would eliminate the troubling prospect of one candidate winning the presidency even though his opponent got more votes.
This may have been acceptable in the far less democratic age when our Constitution was adopted, but not today. State legislatures originally chose presidential electors, now voters do. Once, only white male property owners could vote, now virtually all adults can. The National Popular Vote is the logical culmination of the long process of democratizing the presidential election process.
The plan would also create a truly national campaign. Even in a close election, most states are safely either "red" or "blue" and the winner-take-all rule leads candidates to ignore them. In 2004, 97 percent of the campaign ads and 92 percent of campaign events took place in just 13 battleground states. In the final month, 72 percent of the expenditures occurred in just five states. The last time presidential candidates actively campaigned in North Carolina was 1992. Like most Americans we have become mere spectators, with no chance of influencing the outcome of the election.
Under National Popular Vote, every vote would count, and the president would be chosen by the entire nation rather than the lucky residents of a handful of battleground states.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, VOTERS WHO ARE IGNORED BY THE CANDIDATES AREN'T LIKELY TO VOTE. In 2004 turnout was 7.4 percent lower in "spectator" than in "battleground" states. Among young voters turnout was 17 percent lower, an especially troubling figure given the fact that individuals establish stable patterns of voting, or not, in those elections that take place immediately after they become eligible to vote.
Critics of National Popular Vote raise a number of objections. Some, like invocations of the "wisdom of the Framers," are hard to take seriously given that the process has never worked as they expected. The charge that the plan would cause candidates to focus on voters in large cities is particularly ironic given the extremely narrow focus of current campaigns.
National Popular Vote does raise some serious issues. It could possibly raise the costs of elections, since candidates would compete in every state, but it might not, since candidates spend whatever they can raise no matter how many states they compete in. Even if costs do rise, a truly national election would be worth paying for.
Some worry that this change will undermine the two-party system, resulting in multi-candidate elections in which winners received far less than a majority of the vote. But our long two-party tradition, along with ballot access and campaign finance laws favoring existing parties, makes this unlikely. The strongest force for two-party politics, the winner-take-all rule, would not be abolished by the plan, it would just operate at the national rather than at the state level as it currently does.
It's certainly wise to be wary of any change in election laws, but the National Popular Vote is an extremely cautious strategy; it is actually far less dangerous than a constitutional amendment. If it does cause problems, individual states can withdraw from the compact at any time, except right before and after a presidential election, and force a return to the current system. We aren't locked into change as we would be with an amendment.
Direct popular election of the president is long overdue. It enjoys overwhelming support and is consistent with our evolving democratic traditions. It has far fewer pitfalls than the current system, and if problems do arise, the interstate compact approach allows us to reverse course. North Carolina should join the compact, retire the Electoral College camel and guarantee every citizen a voice in the presidential election.
(Clyde Frazier teaches politics at Meredith College. These ideas were originally developed in a talk to the Raleigh Civitan Club.)