'Everybody's vote should count'

// Published October 29, 2008 in The Newport Mercury
‘Everybody's vote should count’

Safe state, sore spot. Matt Sledge, pictured at the Rhode Island Statehouse, says the Electoral College does not benefit small states like Rhode Island as candidates have no incentive to court voters here.

Director, FairVote Rhode Island

Seen John McCain or Barack Obama in Rhode Island lately? They are not fighting for votes here or in other tried and true blue states. They spend their time, energy and money in swing states. It’s a system that winds up ignoring 12 of the 13 smallest states, says Matt Sledge, director of FairVote Rhode Island, the state chapter of a national organization dedicated to reforming our electoral system. He wants every vote to count and every voice to matter. Which is why the 2008 Brown University graduate is an advocate for the National Popular Vote plan, which would maintain the structure of the Electoral College but use the power the Constitution grants states to determine how Electoral College votes are awarded. Once passed by enough states, the plan would guarantee victory to the national popular vote winner in every state. Sledge has also worked to get legislation passed that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, an initiative Gov. Donald L. Carcieri vetoed after it passed in the General Assembly for the third year.

You’re from Indianapolis, right? How many electoral votes does Indiana have?
Twelve, I believe.

So you went from 12 to 4 when you moved to Rhode Island, right?
That’s right.

With only 4 electoral votes, what could inspire young Rhode Island voters to actually want to participate on Election Day?
We want young people to feel they have a direct stake, and when we talk about the Electoral College, the goal is not to make people in Rhode Island feel as if they don’t have a voice in the presidential election. It’s to educate them on how the current Electoral College system distorts what should be their influence. Everybody’s vote should count, and everybody should be able to say at midnight on election night, “Oh, there’s the grand vote total of 60 million five hundred thousand and 1 ... and that one is me.”

I read that in only three elections in U.S. history — 1876, 1888 and 2000 — has the president not won the popular vote and still won the Electoral College.
Only three out of 43? If you think about that in terms of percentages, that’s a huge error rate.

How has your time as editor of the College Hill Independent while a student at Brown University helped you in your current position?
I covered a lot of politics with the Indy, especially Providence politics. When you think of these big broad brush plans like the National Popular Vote bill and this idea to overhaul and reform the way we elect our president, it might be easy to forget about these local municipal elections and how they are in need of plenty of reform, too.

So it’s almost a microcosm of the United States government?
I’m thankful we don’t have an Electoral College system for mayors or governors. Can you imagine what would happen if we did? If every four years, three of our 50 states had a major succession crisis? Do you think anybody would put up with that?

Why do you think the Electoral College system — in which 538 popularly elected representatives select the president and vice president — has lasted so long?
I think a lot of people don’t look at it in a fundamental way. They don’t consider what it means that we don’t add up every individual person’s vote. I don’t really believe it benefits any party, any minority, any state. It’s not good on a fundamental level to have this system, which is almost designed to shake our faith in the legitimacy of the presidential victor every once in a while.

How likely is it that it would change?
I think it’s very likely. People have been going about it the wrong way. This National Popular Vote bill works within the confines of the Constitution and the Electoral College very well, because each state has the power to appoint its electors. This is just a plan to change the way the states appoint their electors. The Gallup organization started polling Americans about the EC in the 1940s, and ever since then, consistently, 70 percent of Americans have supported a direct election for the president.

So the best way for any kind of change would be to start small, as in state by state?
It’s not starting small. It’s starting in the places where you should be starting. It’s starting where you have the power to direct how your electors are appointed. It’s already passed in four states, and it’s already passed in 21 different legislative chambers.

What are the four states?
Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland. Rhode Island’s already passed it. It was just vetoed by the governor. It’s a bill that has been introduced in 47 states, so there’s broad national support for something like this. And, most importantly, we have the people on our side.

Why allow teens to pre-register to vote?
Once people are registered, they are a lot more likely to vote because they can.

We view voter pre-registration as just one part of the larger effort to involve people in politics. We’re also working on a civics education curriculum to teach people about the history of suffrage in Rhode Island.

Wouldn’t pre-registration create more work for government officials, putting an undue burden on them because they are tracking citizens who can’t vote yet?
No, I think it has absolutely the opposite effect. Pre-registration is designed to work within the civics classroom or the DMV when kids are getting their license for the first time. So they’re going to be guided by their civics teacher, who will hopefully have a pretty good idea how to fill out the registration form, or they’re going to be using this computer at the DMV. Both of these environments are apt to cut down on error and make registering a lot more straightforward. I think local election officials would be happier to have forms come in six or eight months ahead instead of getting this crush just before an election.

What’s the best thing about working for FairVote ?
It’s fun! I get to talk to people about their right to exercise their voice all day long. That’s what I do. People are just so thrilled that they can make a difference and you are there explaining to them how they can make that difference.

What’s the worst thing?
When the governor vetoes bills that have broad public support. It’s frustrating that one guy dissed the work we’ve been doing all year long in a two-paragraph veto message.