Time to graduate from Electoral College

By Wayne Woodlief
Published May 18th 2007 in Boston Herald
There’s a nationwide move afoot, to be discussed at Saturday’s state Democratic issues convention, to scrap the antiquated Electoral College system through state-by-state action rather than by constitutional amendment - almost impossible to achieve because of small-state clout in the Senate.

I like the idea. It would assure that the popular vote winner is actually elected. It should increase voter participation. And it would give states like ours - whose one-party domination causes presidential nominees to virtually ignore us in favor of battleground states - more clout.

Rep. Charles A. Murphy (D-Burlington), one of 30 state legislators already co-sponsoring a bill to bring Massachusetts on board, quipped, “What a radical idea: Have the candidate who gets the most votes win!”

Making a case for bipartisan support, he said, “Exhibit A is the 2000 election.” Al Gore won the national popular vote but George Bush prevailed in the Electoral College. “And Exhibit B is 2004,” when a swing of about 60,000 votes in Ohio would have given John Kerry the presidency in the Electoral College though Bush led by more than 2 million in the popular vote.

State Democratic Chairman John Walsh (Gov. Deval Patrick’s head guru) also is enthusiastic about the prospect even as he cautions that the state party has not yet taken a position. “It’s a hopeful idea,” he said. “It enfranchises every voter” and it “puts more places into play in presidential politics; pumps up voter passion, puts more emphasis on building grassroots infrastructure.”

Here’s how it works: It wouldn’t officially kill the Electoral College system, but it would render it powerless. Our Constitution lets states decide how they choose their electors. The National Popular Vote bill would provide that all a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate with the most popular votes nationwide, not the candidate who carries that state, as now.

The new system wouldn’t go into effect until a sufficient number of states that total 270 or more electoral votes have passed the legislation. That would ensure a majority of the 538 electoral votes for the national popular vote winner, with compacts among the states sealing the deal. Your vote toward building a nationwide surge for your candidate would be more valuable than a vote for a candidate almost certain to lose in your state.

It’s highly unlikely this system would be ready for 2008, but momentum is building. Last month, Maryland became the first state to pass the National Popular Vote bill and have it signed into law. Illinois may be on the verge.

The North Carolina Senate has approved popular vote legislation. It passed in Hawaii, but was vetoed by the governor. Ditto for California last year, but proponents there have mounted a fresh try. It has been voted out of committee in six other states, including Connecticut.

Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester) thinks it’s a natural for Massachusetts. “Presidential candidates may come here to raise money but now they don’t have to spend much campaign time up here after the New Hampshire primary,” Walsh said. But if Bay State votes are still in play, as part of a nationwide haul, candidates might pay more heed here and “even give some lift to our economy” from campaign spending.
Sure, some people would find it hard to say goodbye to the traditional system. But I agree with Murphy, Marty Walsh, Common Cause and the growing number of legislators, including Rep. Lewis Evangelidis (R-Holden), that Massachusetts’ presidential votes will be a lot more valuable under the new system. (They certainly would have been for Gore in 2000).

This is a good idea. The more people learn about it, as the Democrats will this weekend, the more support it should receive. Reforms take time. So let’s get cracking now.