An opportunity to dump the electoral college

By Frank Askin
Published December 18th 2007 in
New Jersey, on January 3, could become the second - after Maryland- state to adopt a proposal that could lead to the demise of the Electoral College in favor of election of the president by popular vote. Illinois is expected to sign on in January.

The National Popular Vote Act has already passed the state Assembly, and is expected to be voted on by the Senate on the third of January.

The bill provides that when enacted by states that amongst them cast a majority of the electoral votes, those states electoral votes will go to the winner of the popular vote nationally rather than to the candidate that carried the state. In other words, even though New Jersey voted for a Democrat for president, the state's 15 electoral vote would go automatically to a Republican who won nationwide - and visa versa. While the Electoral College would formally remain, the election of the president would follow the popular will.

Assuming that the law's constitutionality were to be upheld by the Supreme Court, it would sidestep the Electoral College without having to amend the Federal Constitution, which appears to be hopeless task.

Although it is not completely clear which party would benefit most from the change, the proposal seems to be getting most of its support from Democratic lawmakers. Recall, in 2000, Al Gore captured the popular vote, while George W. Bush won the electoral vote. However, that result could have been transposed in 2004 had John Kerry carried Ohio. In addition to 2000, there are three other times in American history when the candidate who received the most votes lost the presidency - 1824, 1876 and 1888.

Moreover, most political observers agree that voting participation would rise substantially if every vote counted in the election of a president. As things stand now, the votes of 70 to 80 per cent of the American electorate are irrelevant in a presidential election. It is only the votes of those living in the handful of battleground states that actually count. If you are a Democrat living in Mississippi or Alabama, you might just as well stay home on Election Day. Indeed, even if you're a Republican there you can stay home, since you know your party will prevail without you. The situation isn reversed in New York and Massachusetts.

Indeed, in 2004, there were only 13 of the 50 states that observers considered "in play" at all in the presidential election. In that year, 63 per cent of the money spent by the candidates on TV ads during the last thirty days was spent in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. More money was spent in Florida alone that in 45 states and the District of Columbia combined.

The candidates generally ignored the non-competitive states, just as they currently spend their time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in the presidential primaries. When asked why he robbed banks, the notorious bandit Willie Sutton answered, 'because that's where the money is." Why do the presidential candidates spend so much time on Ohio, Florida and a few other states, because that's where the crucial electoral votes are.

Presidential campaigns would be transformed if every vote counted. Democrats could no longer afford to ignore their supporters in Mississippi, Alabama and Texas; and you can bet that the Republican candidate would have to spend time in upstate New York even if there was little chance of carrying the state as a whole.