At long last: A truly fair popular presidential vote?

By Neal R. Peirce
Published March 5th 2006 in The Houston Chronicle
EVER since the 1960s, when I wrote a book optimistically titled The People's President — I've been intrigued, and frustrated, by the Electoral College. How could we stick with a system that cavalierly values some votes over others, failing to assure the election of the winner of the popular vote?

So when news came last week of an inventive proposal to guarantee a popular vote victory, bypassing the tortuous path of constitutional amendment, I felt a rare surge of political hope.

The new idea is disarmingly simple: Use the instrument of interstate compact to recast the system, guaranteeing the popular vote candidate's election, not from Washington down, but from the states up.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia would be invited to pass identical measures, compact legislation under which they agree to cast 100 percent of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate who receives the largest total number of popular votes in all states. The compact would go into effect when — but only when — states with votes constituting a majority of the Electoral College (270 of the total of 538) signed up.

Who's behind this new idea? On the one hand, I discovered, some warhorses of yesteryear, former congressional leaders who'd been frustrated system reformers. Among them: former Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., leader of Electoral College reform efforts in the 1960s and '70s, and former Rep. John B. Anderson, R-Ill., an independent candidate for president in 1980.

But reform ranks have swelled with a new generation of direct vote advocates, including Common Cause and FairVote and a coterie of computer experts, lawyers and political scientists. Among them: John R. Koza, a Stanford University computer scientist who came across the idea of compacts while pushing interstate lottery agreements as CEO of Scientific Games Inc. Koza is lead author of a new book — Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President, featured on the group's newly launched Web site,

Koza notes how the Constitution accords state governments total discretion on how they pick their presidential electors. Plus, he adds, the Constitution allows interstate compacts, a power the courts have upheld, even without a specific congressional OK. Literally hundreds of compacts now exist, states agreeing on every topic from borders to collecting taxes to allocating waters in river basins.

The new proposal, say backers, wouldn't just assure that the popular-vote winner really becomes president. It would also correct today's distorted presidential politics, in which virtually all presidential campaigning gets focused on a handful of battleground states.

Candidates virtually ignore about two-thirds of America — politically safe Republican Texas and Georgia, for example, or normally Democratic New York, California and Illinois. The "safe" states, notes Anderson, end up as "flyover territory, tossed on the scrap heap and ignored."

Bayh concurs: Under today's system, there's no incentive for voters in safely red or blue states to vote — "It's a 'stay-at-home plan.'"

Is the plan partisanly neutral? Yes, argue proponents. President Bush won the Electoral College in 2000 by edging out Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, even though Gore won 543,895 more popular votes nationally. But in 2004, a switch of just 59,301 votes in Ohio would have given Sen. John Kerry an Electoral College majority even though Bush led nationally by 3 million votes. Today's system, it turns out, is a bipartisan spoiler, Russian roulette, ready any election year to destroy either party's popular mandate.

As for the argument that small states now have an advantage, by virtue of their guaranteed base of two "extra" electoral votes, it turns out 12 of the 13 smallest states are ignored in elections — six because they're safely Democratic, six because they're safely Republican (New Hampshire being the only competitive state in group).

Illinois may be first off the wire to act on the new proposal. Sponsors include a prominent conservative, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, the DuPage County Republican chair, and state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, an African-American liberal.

I'm betting ambitious legislators everywhere will start sponsoring the newly proposed plan as a way to gain broad, favorable public recognition on an issue that resonates with a big majority of voters.

And where legislatures might not act, Koza asserts, the proposal can, in many states, be pushed as a popular ballot initiative.

Realistically, this new plan is too late for 2008 — at the best, it could be in place by 2012. But watch it gather momentum, argues Anderson — it bypasses the painfully slow and difficult process of constitutional amendment, even while carrying out the framers' intent that states should decide on how electoral votes are cast.

Anderson argues it's a "a sweetheart of an idea." Barring appearance of some lurking legal flaw, I think he's right. Hope, at last!

Peirce is a syndicated columnist who specializes in city and state affairs. ([email protected])
Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.