Garrett J. Bradley and Pamela H. Wilmot: In the most important election, all votes should matter

Garrett J. Bradley and Pamela H. Wilmot // Published December 15, 2008 in Enterprise News

On Monday, 538 men and women met in state capitals throughout the nation to elect the next president of the United States. These meetings are not just a formality, they are an injustice.

The Electoral College is both outmoded and deeply undemocratic. The current system of assigning electors places importance on a handful of battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, thus effectively ignoring voters in Massachusetts and other “spectator states.” Even in this fall’s election with unprecedented involvement and resources, 54 percent of the ads and 57 percent of the visits took place in 4 states, and 98 percent in just 15 states.

Voters in more than two-thirds of the states, including Massachusetts, safely in the Democratic (blue) or Republican (red) column, just don’t count. And of course, a candidate with less votes can be elected President. Four times in our history – in 2000, 1888, 1876, and 1824 – the candidate who placed second in the popular vote has won the highest office in the nation.

A bill that we champion in the Massachusetts Legislature will fix this by changing the way the Electoral College operates.

The plan, once also adopted by enough other states, would ensure that the candidate who wins the popular vote in all 50 states would be elected president. And, it would ensure that each vote is counted equally and that our leaders are accountable to the nation as a whole, not just voters in a handful of swing states.

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Constitution does not instruct the States on how to select presidential electors. The framers left that to the states. Electors have been elected directly without binding their support to a presidential candidate, appointed by state legislators, elected by congressional district, and as is currently the case in all but Maine and Nebraska, elected statewide in winner-take-all slates. The framers purposely built this flexibility into their plan.

The National Popular Vote legislation uses this existing constitutional authority and another clause in the U.S. Constitution that enables states to enter into legally enforceable joint agreements to elect the president using the popular vote total for all 50 states. Under National Popular Vote, the agreement would take effect only when identical enabling legislation has been enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of the Electoral College – that is 270 of the 538 electoral votes, roughly equal to half of the population, and most likely around 25 states. These states agree to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, thereby guaranteeing the popular vote winner a supermajority in the Electoral College.

The plan has the backing of many opinion leaders, newspapers, civil rights and good government groups, including Common Cause. It has received a great reception in legislatures across the country, already passing 21 chambers, and has been signed into law in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii – not bad for a proposal that debuted approximately two years ago.

Here in Massachusetts, the proposal overwhelmingly passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate, but just missed receiving a final procedural vote on the last day of formal sessions. It will be resubmitted in the next legislative session and House and Senate leaders, who strongly support the legislation, back swift passage.

The National Popular Vote compact is a constitutionally sound and practical plan to enact a nationwide popular vote for the president – a goal supported by more than 70 percent of the American population. In the most important election in the world, every vote should count, and count equally, regardless of whether it is cast from Florida or from Massachusetts.

State Rep. Garrett J. Bradley, D-Hingham, is House Chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. Pamela H. Wilmot is executive director of the non-partisan government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts.