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One step closer to a national popular vote

May 19, 2011

By Steve Mount

The Electoral College is a unique feature of our system of electing a national leader. After two centuries, though, is it time to do away with the College?

The Electoral College is the body that actually elects the President and Vice President. When we, the people, vote for a presidential candidate, we are not actually voting for a single person. We are, instead, voting for a slate of electors. The chosen electors meet on Elector Day, sometime in December following the general election, and cast their votes for the two offices.

Each state has a number of electors equal to its congressional representation. With one seat in the House and two seats in the Senate, Vermont has three electors. Each party fielding a presidential candidate selects electors. The electors are typically party loyalists, pledged to cast their vote for the party’s choice for President and Vice President.

The Electoral College was designed, in 1787, for an entirely different America. Time, however, revealed some fatal flaws in the Electoral College system, and though the most egregious flaws were fixed long ago, it may be time to take another serious look.

Originally, each elector cast two votes for President. The person with the most votes became President, and the runner-up became Vice President. This system would have worked fine if people did not begin to divide themselves into parties — but they did, almost immediately.

In the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republican party ran Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr against Federalists John Adams and Thomas Pinckney. Each dutiful Democratic-Republican elector cast his votes, toeing the party line: one for Jefferson and one for Burr. In the end, Jefferson and Burr got 73 votes, even though the plan had been to elect Jefferson. Someone forgot to tell at least one Democratic-Republican elector to vote for someone other than Burr. The resulting fray, where the election was decided in the House by a Federalist majority, lead to the 12th Amendment, that specified separate ballots for the two executive positions.

The 1876 election of Rutherford Hayes was a partisan mess. Hayes’s opponent, Samuel Tilden, won a narrow majority of the popular vote, but when it came time to count the electoral votes, the results were not quite so clear. Hayes and Tilden were both close to the needed majority, but many electoral votes were challenged. It took a congressional commission, and the end of military occupation in the post-war South, to assign enough votes to Hayes.

Most of us remember the controversy between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000. Gore had a narrow lead over Bush in the popular vote, beating Bush by just over half a percentage point. After much controversy in several states, and Florida in particular, the electoral vote went to Bush, 271-266.

The National Popular Vote movement, which aims to make the winner of the popular vote the President without concern for these electoral college vagaries, got a boost this year when the Vermont legislature threw its support behind the plan. The NPV movement looks not to amend the Constitution, but to work within its confines.

It seeks to create a compact of sorts, accumulating support one state at a time, until at least enough states to make up the majority of 270 electoral votes sign on. In states where the NPV is enacted, the state’s law would change to direct its electors to cast their votes for whichever candidate won the national popular vote, without regard to the candidate’s vote tally in that state.

Including Vermont’s three, the NPV now has 77 electoral votes from eight states to its name.

I’m a fan of working within the system, and would like to see the NPV plan come to fruition. I am dubious that electors could be punished for not voting with the national popular vote (the Constitution gives the electors wide latitude in their votes), but it would not be difficult to avoid faithless electors with proper vetting.

I do think that losing the Electoral College would be a sad thing. It is quirky, uniquely American, and an avenue into learning more about where we came from as a nation. But despite the value of these things, having a simple, straightforward, and predictable system, based on the popular vote, seems like the best way forward for our democracy. Hopefully, Vermont’s support for the compact will nudge other states to support the NPV, too.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at [email protected] or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.

 

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