Bill aims to join popular vote compact

Scott MacKay // Published March 19, 2008 in The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island would join a national compact to require that the electoral college system used to choose American presidents switch to electing presidents by the popular vote, under legislation heard yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Donald Lally, D-Narragansett, would add Rhode Island to the list of states seeking to establish a national compact to guarantee that all states would agree to apportion electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. Thus, if a Republican won the popular vote, Rhode Island’s 4 electoral votes — usually Democratic — would go to the GOP winner.

The idea is to get legislatures, one by one, to enter their states into an interstate compact under which states would agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact would become effective only when enough states had joined to elect a president — that is when states equaling at least 270 electoral votes, the number needed to win the White House, agreed.

One benefit would be to get the national presidential candidates to pay attention to states other than the so-called “battleground states,” such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, that are crucial under the electoral college system.

The contested 2000 presidential election is the race that is always pointed to when popular vote debates are held. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, won the election on the electoral vote despite finishing more than 500,000 popular votes behind Democrat Al Gore.

In 2004, Bush won reelection with both electoral and popular vote majorities in defeating Democrat John Kerry, but Ari Savitzky, a lobbyist for the legislation, told the committee that Republicans, too, should be concerned about the electoral college’s distortions.

A shift of just 60,000 votes in Ohio, Savitzky said, would have given Democrat Kerry an electoral college victory, “even though Bush had a healthy popular vote margin of 3 million votes.”

The compact system has been enacted into law so far by New Jersey and Maryland and has been approved by both legislative chambers in California, Hawaii and Illinois and by one chamber in five other states, including Vermont, where the House approved the measure yesterday.

The legislation provoked little discussion, but was opposed vigorously by Rep. Bruce Long, R-Middletown. Long said he worried that such a compact would skirt the U.S. Constitution’s amendment process, which requires that such a change receive a two-thirds vote of Congress and ratification of three-quarters of the states.

“Doesn’t it make sense to go through the American constitutional system?” said Long. “It is a system that has worked, a system people are accustomed to … I don’t think this legislation makes a lot of sense.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Paul Moura, D-East Providence.