The national popular vote alternative

// Published June 21, 2008 in The Enterprise (Brockton, MA)
With the state Legislature scheduled to adjourn at the end of July, there is a long list of unfinished business. But in the heat of a presidential campaign, one item seems especially timely: An interstate compact providing for presidents to be elected by popular vote.

The Electoral College has not turned out to be among the Founders' brightest ideas. Its vote is a mere formality in almost every presidential election, an outrage in the rare cases when it has awarded the White House to the candidate who came in second.

But the Electoral College's most insidious impact is on how campaigns are run, not in determining the winner. Created to equalize the clout of the states, it has instead created two tiers: Battleground states, which candidates fight over because party affiliations are evenly balanced, and states where one party holds a clear advantage, which the candidates ignore.

Count Massachusetts in the latter category. Bay State voters are taken for granted by Democrats and written off by Republicans. There is no incentive to campaign here, since our 12 electoral votes are assumed to be locked up by the Democratic candidate. Massachusetts Republicans - like Democrats in such GOP strongholds as Utah - might as well stay home.

If presidential elections were determined by popular vote, every vote would count. Every community would be a battleground, contested by candidates and their supporters. It would put Massachusetts, and other non-battleground states, back in the game. Why should Ohio have all the fun?

The Electoral College could be abolished through a Constitutional amendment, but there's an easier alternative: an interstate compact through which states agree to commit their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who won the state. The compact would go into effect only if enough states ratify it to effectively commit the 270 electoral votes required to select a president.

Four states with 40 electoral votes have already approved the compact, and states with another 62 electoral votes - including Massachusetts - are in the process. It won't go into effect with this November's election, but could bring a welcome change in time for 2012.

There is wide support for the change, with 73 percent of Massachusetts residents approving a national popular vote in a recent poll sponsored by Common Cause, which backs the proposal. There is support in the Legislature as well, including endorsements by House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray.

But in every session, worthy bills die because the clock runs out before the Legislature votes. DiMasi has been especially stingy with the House's time this year, scheduling few formal sessions even when pressing business is at hand. The national popular vote proposal is worth a few hours of debate.

In every elective office but one, the candidate with the most votes wins. Massachusetts - and the nation - would greatly benefit by approving a compact that prevents the Electoral College from distorting the democratic process.