Is it time to close Electoral College?

Edward Fitzpatrick // Published December 18, 2008 in The Providence Journal
I’ve always liked the Electoral College. For one thing, it’s just about the only college that my alma mater, Syracuse University, can beat in a football game.

I’ve heard reasonable arguments for electing our president by a pure popular vote. But I’ve assumed it would be a bad idea for Rhode Island, given that our little state gets a disproportionate share of electoral votes.

So I wasn’t about to throw a shoe when Republican Governor Carcieri vetoed a bill that would have allowed Rhode Island to join a national compact of states that would 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 decided to make the same change.

In his July 2 veto message, Carcieri said, “This legislation attempts to eviscerate the Electoral College and subvert the Constitution of the United States.” And he said, “Our Founding Fathers established a process by which the American people would elect a President and Vice President.”

I was impressed by the strong verbs — eviscerate, subvert — and wondered how anyone could argue with the Founding Fathers.

But Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, was ready to take on Carcieri when he came to Providence Monday night to help raise money for FairVote Rhode Island, which is pushing for direct election of the president. Hertzberg, once President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, is on the national FairVote board of directors.

If people such as Carcieri “think the Electoral College is such a good idea, why don’t they propose it on the state level?” Hertzberg asked. In most elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. “It’s pretty simple,” he said. “And that’s how your governor was elected.”

On his blog, Hertzberg noted the Constitution gives each state the power to pick electors “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.” And he said the Founding Fathers did not establish “the current system,” in which states award all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in each state.

Hertzberg said the current system is “unjust” because “it can easily deprive the people of their preferred choice but also, and mainly, because it shuts the citizens of the 30 or more non-‘battleground’ states out of the game.”

In an interview, Carcieri said the Electoral College was meant to prevent smaller states from being “steamrolled” by larger states, and he said the system “has withstood the test of time.”

Hertzberg said, “To say that it has withstood the test of time is simply to say that it’s old.” And he said having a disproportionate share of electoral votes hasn’t kept Rhode Island from becoming a “spectator” state — all but ignored by presidential candidates. Of the 13 states with the smallest populations, only New Hampshire has avoided “spectator” status, he said.

FairVote says 98 percent of this year’s presidential campaign events and more than 98 percent of related campaign spending took place in just 15 states, which represent 36.6 percent of the country’s eligible voters.

Hertzberg said Republicans tend to be suspicious of the FairVote proposal, seeing it as linked to the 2000 election that put President Bush in the White House although he lost the popular vote. But he said the plan should have bipartisan appeal, and the main reason he supports it is “because the current system kills politics in most of the country in a general presidential election.”

Like SU football, the national popular vote has a long way to go. But count me in as its newest fan.