Candidates ignore R.I.:

LINCOLN CHAFEE and ARI SAVITZKY // Published August 8, 2008
IN ABOUT THREE MONTHS Rhode Islanders will cast their votes for General Assembly, local school committees, and city and town councils. Their votes will be counted, tallied, and will directly determine who is chosen to serve.

Those voters will also cast ballots for president of the United States. Unfortunately, the individual votes for president cast here in Rhode Island won't matter to the candidates nearly as much as the ones they get in New Hampshire, Iowa, or Ohio.

Why? Because the current system used to elect the president divides huge chunks of the map into red and blue, all but ignoring all voters in those safe states, and focusing all of the attention and resources on a handful of swing states.

This legislative session the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a state-based plan that would ensure an equal vote for all Rhode Islanders in the presidential election. The National Popular Vote plan maintains the structure and tradition of the Electoral College, but uses the plenary power granted to the states by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to determine how Electoral College votes are awarded.

Once it is passed by enough states, this plan would guarantee victory to the national popular vote winner in all 50 states. Just as we elect our city and town council members, our individual votes will be counted, tallied and directly determine the president of the United States.

Just as in every other American election, each voter would be equal, and the candidate with the most votes would be the winner.

A national popular vote would be vastly superior to the current system, which practically shuts out over 30 "safe states." Not only is this a question of basic fairness, it is also in Rhode Island's interest. Right now, candidates have no reason to campaign here, organize here, or spend money here — getting more or fewer popular votes will almost never change the electoral vote outcome. Under a national popular vote, every vote would count equally, giving candidates an incentive to seek them here in Rhode Island.

On election night, we would know that a vote in Rhode Island counted as much as a vote in any battleground state, and we would see our direct contribution to democracy in the national popular vote total.

The apportionment of Electoral College does not benefit small states. In fact, the apportionment of the electors was a concession to the slave states, who demanded an indirect system that could count enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. While the Electoral College gives Rhode Island a slight mathematical advantage, that advantage does not translate into influence. If electoral votes per capita were any indicator of influence, Wyoming and Vermont would be key players in any electoral math. They are not. Of the 13 small states, only one, New Hampshire, is a swing state.

Nor does the current system benefit minority communities. A resolution supporting a national popular vote which just passed the general body of the NAACP noted that more than 80 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans live in the 37 least competitive states, compared to 70 percent of white persons.

Under a national popular vote, every voter, in every state and region, would matter equally. Candidates would seek rural, suburban and urban votes, wherever they could get them. Winning the cities does not in itself translate into victory — in Ohio in 2004, for example, President Bush won the state while losing handily in its largest cities. In a national popular vote election, a candidate could win America's largest cities in a rout and lose the nation in a landslide.

As a former U.S. senator and a democracy activist, we have both supported a constitutional amendment to create a national popular vote for president. The national popular vote plan is a more constitutionally moderate, achievable way to create an equal vote for every American.

The founders did not endorse our current system. They intended for the electors to be a deliberative, unelected body — even today, "faithless" electors may vote in defiance of their states. The framers empowered the states to make the rules for presidential elections, and most of the states, over time, created statutes for winner-take-all, statewide popular elections. A state-based plan for a national popular vote both respects and flows from that historical framework.

Seventy percent of Americans have supported a national popular vote since the dawn of public polling. A 2008 poll showed that 74 percent of Rhode Islanders back the idea. Even critics acknowledge the inherent wisdom of an equal vote. No one is pushing Electoral College systems for governors or other offices.

An equal vote for every American is a basic promise of our great democracy, and the presidential election should not be an exception. The states can — and should — make this promise a reality.

Lincoln Chafee is a former U.S. senator from Rhode Island. Ari Savitzky is chairman of the FairVote Rhode Island board of advisers.