Chafee joins push for Electoral College reform

Katherine Gregg // Published July 8, 2008 in The Providence Journal

Former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee waded back into the state political arena recently, in an effort to convince Rhode Island lawmakers to support a movement to change the way U.S. presidents are selected.

His quiet, letter-writing campaign came to light last week, after Republican Governor Carcieri vetoed a bill that would have allowed Rhode Island to join a national compact of states that commit their electoral delegates to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who carries each state.

The measure would kick in only if states representing a majority of the nation's 538 electoral votes decide to make the same change. Only a handful have so far.

The proposal is aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2000 election, when Democrat Al Gore got the most votes nationwide but Republican George W. Bush put together enough victories in key states to win a majority in the Electoral College and capture the White House.

As the bill moved its way through the Rhode Island legislature, opponents warned that Rhode Island's voice would be severely "diluted" by a switch to popular-vote selection.

But the Republican-turned-Independent Chafee made this counter argument: Rhode Island is usually "ignored'' by both major parties in because the results here are a foregone conclusion:

"Candidates don't come here or familiarize themselves with our issues and ... don't spend money here. The result is that we are essentially shut out of presidential election politics.''

With Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fighting for every state, the recent Rhode Island primary was an exception.

"By ensuring that the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states wins in the Electoral College, we ensure that every vote is equally important in presidential elections. On election night, we could know that a vote in Rhode Island counted as much as a vote in a battleground state such as Ohio, and we would see our direct contribution to democracy in the national popular vote total.''

Looking beyond Rhode Island, Chafee said neither national party needs to go too far back in history to find evidence that "the current state-by-state winner-take-all electoral vote apportionment is seriously flawed. ... Democrats get angry just thinking about the 2000 election, but Republicans were close to the same scenario in 2004...[when] a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio could have given Sen. [John] Kerry an Electoral College victory, despite the president's popular vote margin of over 3 million votes.''

In an email exchange with Political Scene this week, Chafee said this was the only state-level issue that prompted him to contact Rhode Island lawmakers this year and he did so at the request of Ari Savitzky, local lobbyist for the National Popular Vote movement.

Said Chafee: "I became interested in the Electoral College system as we went about the scenario of VP [Al] Gore presiding over the counting of the Electoral College votes in early 2001. I learned about the flaws ... and co-sponsored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. Our amendment went nowhere ... [so when] Ari asked me to sign a letter this year which I was happy to do.''

In his veto message, Carcieri denounced the move as an attempt to "eviscerate the Electoral College and subvert the Constitution of the United States. ... Despite the cries from those who believe the current system is unjust, and that the only legitimate way to select a Commander-in-Chief is by direct election, no serious effort has been made to amend the Constitution to provide this 'remedy.' ''

Chafee said he was "disappointed but not surprised by the Governor's veto. He is a big Bush fan and many see this effort as coming out of the 2000 election results.''

It remains unclear if lawmakers will return to the State House for a veto override session.