For National Popular Vote

// Published March 2, 2008 in The Hartford Courant
Connecticut, to everyone's surprise, was in play during the Super Tuesday primaries. Three major candidates visited the state.

But that may not happen in the run-up to the November general election (minus a quick fundraising visit or two to Fairfield County). If, say, the state is considered safe for the Democrats, neither candidate will feel the need to campaign here. The same thing is likely to happen in two-thirds of the other states.

Our system of electing the president and vice president is flawed and archaic. There is a way to change it without amending the U.S. Constitution. The states can simply agree to give their electoral votes — regardless of who wins each state's popular vote — to the winner of the national popular vote. There is a serious proposal to adopt the "National Popular Vote" plan here and across the country. It's worth supporting.

Connecticut Often Ignored

The problem with the present system is the winner-take-all rule used in 48 states. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the state's popular vote gets all of the state's electoral votes.

So if a candidate is assured of winning, say, 55 percent of the popular vote, the campaign is over. He or she will get all the electoral votes, and there's no point in trying to get more votes, nor is there any point in the losing candidate losing by fewer votes. Although it's possible that the losing candidate could try to reverse the numbers, what almost always happens is that both candidates put their money and time into battleground states.

According to the FairVote organization, 99 percent of the campaign advertising money in the 2004 presidential election was spent in just 17 states, and 92 percent of the campaign visits were in only 16 states. Issues in those states are thrust to the fore, at the expense of whatever Connecticut and other less-noticed states are concerned about. Federal grants tend to find their way to contested states, especially as elections near.

The way we elect presidents now thwarts the democratic principle of majority rule. Four times in our nation's history, most recently in 2000, a president has won the office while losing the popular vote. It almost happened in a number of other elections. A shift of only 60,000 votes in Ohio would have given the 2004 election to John Kerry, despite President George W. Bush's 3.5 million-vote lead in the popular tally.

Also, the lack of a meaningful campaign depresses voter turnout, which in turn makes things worse for the minority party.

Reformers have been trying to scuttle the Electoral College system for at least 50 years. Twice in the 1970s, a proposed constitutional amendment passed one house of Congress, only to be blocked by beneficiaries of the current system. It is difficult, as it should be, to amend the U.S. Constitution. But because states have the power to allocate their electoral votes, some clever folks have come up with another way around the block.

Change How States Use Votes

The National Popular Vote creates a compact. All of the states that join agree to give their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact only kicks in when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes — 270 of 538, enough to elect a president.

The bill has passed in two states, Maryland and New Jersey, and is in the pipeline in more than 40 other states, including Connecticut. The bill, which failed to pass last year, has been introduced again, and backers say it has a better chance of passage this year.

Support is not universal. Critics such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed the bill after it passed both houses in the California legislature, object to the possibility that a state could give its electoral votes to a candidate it didn't support.

Others in favor of the devil-we-got say the new method could increase the cost of elections and focus campaigning on population centers at the expense of rural areas.

Those points are well-taken, but the positives of National Popular Vote outweigh the negatives. There are no other indirect elections left in government; they are a relic of the past. The Electoral College was supposed to help small-population states (and Southern states where slaves couldn't vote), but most small-population states aren't in play on Election Day. That the 2000 election was hanging on hanging chads was absurd.

If a million votes in Connecticut count as much as a million votes in Ohio, we'll see the candidates again. National Popular Vote is worth a try.