Surgery for the Constitution's 'appendix'

// Published July 15, 2008 in The Metrowest Daily News

The authors of the Constitution began their blueprint for American government with "We the People," but in the pages that followed, they hedged their bets about where sovereignty truly lies. Many of them considered the new nation a union of states, not of individuals, and the toughest work in Philadelphia involved balancing the interests of states.

The Electoral College was a compromise forged in that dynamic, justified as a way to protect the interests of small states. It never quite functioned that way - clashes between regions, not big and small states, marked the nation's first century - and it doesn't function that way now.

The Electoral College matches the number of electors to each state's total Congressional delegation, and since each state has two senators, small states get more electors than their populations would justify. Current defenders of the Electoral College contend it is still needed to ensure small states get the attention of presidential candidates.

But there is no evidence to back this up. Look at three small states just over Massachusetts' borders. Candidates shower New Hampshire with attention, while Vermont and Rhode Island are ignored by both parties. That's because Republicans and Democrats are evenly matched in New Hampshire, while Democrats hold sway in Rhode Island and Vermont.

Size has nothing to do with it. In today's presidential politics, there are the battleground states - Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and a dozen others - where the campaign is hard-fought and the spectator states, like Massachusetts, which both parties take for granted. Six out of the nation's 10 most populous states fall in the spectator category, along with 12 out of the 13 least populous states.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. Not only does the Electoral College remove most states from the campaign, it disenfranchises those who vote in the minority in the "spectator states" - Republicans in Massachusetts, Democrats in Wyoming - entirely.

Last week, the state House approved, by a wide margin, an interstate compact that pledges the state's electors to vote for whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. The compact, which would take effect only when enough states join to guarantee a 270-vote Electoral College victory to the popular vote winner, would effectively end the distinction between battleground and spectator states.

The Electoral College is like the appendix, an organ that serves no useful function and is only noticed when something goes wrong - like the popular vote winner losing the presidency, which has happened four times in 55 elections. The state Senate should join the House, and Gov. Deval Patrick should sign the National Popular Vote bill into law.