House Signs Off On National Popular Vote Bill
By: Michael C. Bailey
The House has signed off on a bill that would replace the current system of electing a President – the Electoral College – with a direct popular vote.
The proposal, backed by the national organization Fair Vote, would not truly abolish the Electoral College since that feat could only be achieved through amending the US Constitution. What it would instead do is take advantage of language in the Constitution that grants states complete control over how it allocates its votes in a Presidential election.
The bill would formally make Massachusetts a member of the national “Agreement among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote,” which would go into effect when enough states representing a total of 270 electoral votes (out of 538) sign onto the agreement. So far Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Washington and New Jersey -- representing 61 electoral votes total -- have already signed on to the compact.
According to Fair Vote, the Electoral College’s role in the system would be slightly altered; it would still serve to ratify the popular vote, but would do so on a national scale rather than ratifying states’ individual popular votes.
Under the Electoral College model, each state receives a number of “electors” equal to its total number of US Senators and Congressmen. These electors vote for a Presidential candidate as mandated by the outcome of their state’s total popular vote (“faithless electors” who vote contrary to public will are rare, but only 24 states have laws that punish faithless electors).
Among the arguments for a direct popular vote is that in the Electoral College system, states with larger populations have a disproportionately greater voice than small states. Yet opponents of a direct popular vote claim that the Electoral College in fact gives smaller states a greater presence in national elections because of the “all or nothing” nature of the college.
Using the 2008 Presidential election as an example, Massachusetts contributed 12 electors to Barack H. Obama’s total. In a direct popular vote situation, support would have been split between President Obama, who received 1.9 million votes in Massachusetts, and his Republican rival US Senator John McCain (R), who received 1.1 million votes.
Notably, had the 2008 election been decided by popular vote, President Obama’s victory would have been much tighter; he received 68 percent of the vote to Sen. McCain’s 32 as measured by the Electoral College, but only 53 percent to Sen. McCain’s 46 percent by popular vote.
Only four times in history has the Electoral College favored the candidate that won the popular vote, most recently in 2000 when Vice-president Al Gore lost to George W. Bush despite having a plurality of the popular vote.
Proposal supporters also claim a popular vote model would diminish the influence of so-called “swing states,” states that could lean toward either party in a given election.
By defusing the swing state factor, candidates would have to pay greater attention to traditional “safe states,” states that have historically supported one party over the other. Massachusetts is regarded as a Democratic safe state, which means neither Democratic nor Republican candidates generally campaign heavily here -- Democrats because they assume voter support is a given, Republicans because they assume they can’t win the state.
According to Fair Vote, 98 percent of post-Labor Day campaign spending in the 2008 Presidential election went toward 15 swing states.
The House voted 114 to 35 in favor of joining the popular vote project. The Cape delegation’s two Republican members voted against the bill.
State Representative Jeffrey D. Perry’s (R – Sandwich) reasons for voting against the bill this year were unchanged from 2008, when the House last voted on the proposal (it died after failing to receive a vote in the Senate before the end of the formal session).
“I don’t have any fundamental objections to changing the way we elect our President to a popular vote,” he said, “but it’s my view that the bill we voted on was an attempt at an end-run around the Constitution…if American and Massachusetts voters want to change to a popular vote, they need to do it through a proper Constitutional process.”
The House shot down a proposal to replace the National Popular Vote bill with a new measure that would chose at least one Presidential elector from each Congressional district, in addition to two statewide electors. Under this system, each district elector would vote for the candidate supported by the majority of voters in his Congressional district.
Supporters of this alternate model, which is already in use in Maine and Nebraska, claimed the result would be a more accurate representation of voter will.
Fair Vote criticized this approach in its report “Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes," claiming that distributing Electoral College votes by Congressional district did not reflect public will as accurately as a direct popular vote.
Using the 2000 Bush/Gore race as an example, Fair Vote showed that President Bush’s margin of victory would have increased by six percent as compared to the Electoral College model.
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