Shame on Rhode Island's governor -- vying for anti-reform governor of the year

by Rob Richie // Published July 4, 2008
Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri on Wednesday vetoed having Rhode Island enter into the National Popular Vote agreement. His action follows on the heels of him vetoing a bill to establish age 16 as a uniform advance voter registration age -- both lead priorities of our vibrant FairVote Rhode Island partner led by the intrepid Ari Savitzky.

Gov. Carcieri's arguments against 16-year-old voter registration were weak enough -- founded allegedly on a worry that it would be "too complicated" to have young people pre-register even though Hawaii has done this for years and Florida just adopted this policy for its much bigger, more complicated electorate.

But his veto message on National Popular Vote is simply laughable, showing absolutely no understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the role it delegates to states for structuring presidential elections. The Governor accurately states "Our Founding fathers established a process by which the American people would elect a President and Vice President." He then bizarrely goes on to say: "The appropriate forum to change or eliminate the Electoral College is through a constitutional amendment to the United States Constitution. The state legislature should focus on legislative matters that are germane to our state and leave federal matters to our congressional delegation."

Come again? The governor is right that the Constitution establishes a process to elect the president. But that process is to have states establish rules for allocating electoral votes. They didn't want the President or Congress making this decision -- they gave plenary power to the states. During the first 40 years of our nation's history, when many of our founders were playing key leadership roles in their states, states regularly acted on this authority, modifying their rules for allocating electoral votes again and again.

Eventually, as our party system became stronger and local partisan majorities wanted to give all their state's electoral votes to the winner of their state, states established today's dominant rule -- the "unit rule" that awards 100% of electoral votes in a state to the winner of that state's popular vote. But this isn't a "more constitutional" system than other options -- it's just the one most states do now. The Constitution makes it clear that this rule should be regularly evaluated by states to see if it's in the best interests of their state and the country.

It's not. The current system is a democratic travesty. In 2004, 99% of all campaign money spent in the peak season of the campaign was focused on only 16 states. Voter turnout among eligible voters was more than 30% higher in the 10 closest states than the rest of the nation. George Bush's campaign was the richest in history, but in the final two years of the campaign never polled a single American living outside of 18 potential battleground states. Our Presidential Elections Inequality report makes an overwhelming case against the validity of the current system.

What most Americans want, what most Rhode Islanders want (more than 70% in a recent poll) and what common sense establishes as the best way to elect the president is to have a president elected by we, the people of the United States. of America. Every vote should be equal, with the president equally accountable to all Americans. The candidate with fewer votes should never defeat a candidate with more votes. It's how we elect all our governors. It's how we elect all our U.S. Senators. It's how our founders structured elections for governor in most states in our nation's early years. It's how we've elected every U.S. House member who has ever served in Congress.

And it's what the National Popular Vote plan establishes with absolute certainty -- once activated when states representing a majority of the Electoral College have adopted it, the National Popular Vote plan will guarantee that every presidential election is decided by the voters in a straight-up popular vote. Every vote will be equal, whether cast in a firmly "blue state" like Rhode Island, a firmly "red state" like Utah or a swing state like Florida.

Gov. Carcieri is showing utter disrespect for the U.S. Constitution and his state's voters by telling Rhode Island legislators to not take action to reform how it allocates electoral votes. He is telling the legislature to reject the responsibility assigned to it by the Constitution -- even though Rhode Island is a quintessential "throwaway state", as columnist David Broder terms states that he argues should be ignored in presidential elections because of not being evenly divided.

It's a tough call to say whether Gov. Carcieri is our nation's worst governor this year on issues of our democracy. Gov. Jim Douglas in Vermont also vetoed the National Popular Vote plan while also vetoing campaign finance legislation and using laughable arguments to justify his veto of legislation to ensure majority rule in congressional elections through instant runoff voting.

As we celebrate Independence Day, I would suggest both Gov. Carcieri and Gov. Douglas take some time to re-read our founding documents. And I hope Rhode Island legislative leaders reject their governor's patently false argument as an affront to the role the Constitution assigns them and overturn his veto.