Popular Vote

Lee Cullum // Published May 9, 2008 in KERA Public Radio

If there's one thing this country needs this year it is a clear winner in the presidential election. Nerves are too raw, given the bank-and-housing crisis, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to withstand another bout of uncertainty at the polls.

Everyone remembers the acrimony of 2000 when George W. Bush lost the popular balloting to Al Gore by a half million votes, yet won election in the Supreme Court after an astonishing display of statewide ineptitude in Florida. What is less well recalled, if many of us ever knew, is that Bush, even though ahead by three million in the nationwide popular vote in 2004, would have lost to John Kerry in the Electoral College if 60,000 people in Ohio had gone for Kerry instead of Bush. Once again we would have had a president who lost the popular vote but nonetheless landed in the White House.

What is relentlessly plain is that the candidates this fall, whoever they turn out to be, will lavish their time and 97 per cent of their campaign dollars on just 13 battleground states, down from 24 in 1960. These are states, mainly in the midwest, that are neither red nor blue. They will be the stage for the strutting and fretting of the autumn to come, while Texas, California, New York and other populous places, along with those less well endowed with people (except for New Hampshire, which is admirably independent) will be merely spectators. It's not just that commercial media organizations will suffer the loss of revenue they would love to have, it's also that the issues important to those parts of the country will be ignored.

Almost nobody likes the current system, created, after all, by a constitution that had to be built around a collection of states, not individuals. Otherwise it never would have been approved. The states were the primary political principle, not the voters. Hence the creation of the Electoral College which draws support today from less than 20 percent of Americans. Now a group called National Popular Vote has come up with to plan to remedy the situation by enforcing the election of the president in a pure, undiluted vote of the people, a plan that could be put in place fairly quickly without the years and years required to pass a constitutional amendment.

It would work like this: Legislatures in enough states to produce 270 electoral votes - the magic number needed to elect a president - would agree to cast their electoral ballots in favor of the candidate who won the national popular vote regardless of the polls among their own people. Already Maryland and New Jersey have adopted this as law, and it has passed one house in Arkansas, Colorado and North Carolina and both houses in California, Hawaii and Illinois. It was introduced in Texas by Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Rep. Patrick Rose of Blanco, Hays and Caldwell counties.

I hope they persist in the next session of the legislature, and that others states join the effort as well. The current system no longer works. It distorts our elections, values some voters more than others and threatens to undermine the legitimacy of some presidents, as happened to George W. Bush in 2000. John Kerry would have faced the same fate if 60,000 voters in Ohio had swung to him four years later.

America needs a president unclouded by questions at the ballot box. National Popular Vote has offered an imaginative and workable route to this urgent objective.