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Why a national popular vote is good for democracy

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  June 3, 2010 06:34 AM

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Call me old-fashioned, but I've always been a believer in one-person, one-vote. That principle -- along with the secret ballot and the notion that the person who gets the most votes should win -- is the very essence of democracy.

So it was welcome news to hear that the Massachusetts House voted, 113 to 35, to support the adoption of a national popular vote in Massachusetts. Now it goes to the state Senate, which should do the same.

The idea of a national popular vote is simple: it guarantees the election of the presidential candidate who receives the most popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It does this by creating an interstate compact among states to award all electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about the national popular vote. After all, the Constitution (Article II, Section I) gives state legislatures the power to decide how to apportion their state's electoral votes, and most states already award the winner of the popular vote all electoral votes. Nor is the use of the interstate compact system new: there are hundreds of such compacts, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or compacts that protect states' rights to water.

Why not have an interstate compact to ensure representative democracy?

Still, adopting of the national popular vote compact would change things -- for the better. The "winner take all" rule in most states currently means that presidential candidates focus nearly off of their resources on "battleground" states, while ignoring most states and voters during campaigns. In 2008, more than 98% of all campaign spending and events focused on 15 states representing barely a third of the population. The rest of us were simply spectators.

Adopting clear rules also would prevent the discomforting situation where the Electoral College awards the presidency to the candidate who lost in the national popular vote. This has happened more often than you might think, including the Bush-Gore election of 2000.

A few people argue that extending the vote equally to everyone will undermine the traditions set forth by our Founding Fathers. But not all of the traditions embraced by our founding fathers are worthy of our respect. After all, these were the guys who denied the vote to women, people of color, and people who didn't own property. And they were not above manipulating the system in their favor. Did you know that, early on, the Electoral College counted all those people (including slaves and women) in determining a state's Electoral College votes even while denying those same people the vote? They did this to ensure that Virginia had more electoral votes than New York or Pennsylvania in 1800 despite its denial of the popular vote to nearly 40% of its population. No wonder our first four three of our first four presidents were Virginians!

The Electoral College has been reformed over the years in lots of ways, usually for the better. In the early days, the runner-up in a presidential election became the vice president. The result was presidents who had opponents as their vice presidents (notably John Adams in the 1796 election). Imagine if Barack Obama had John McCain as his vice president…you have to admit that it would be highly dysfunctional (okay, it also would be highly entertaining, but definitely not good for effective governing).

Some reforms are worth adopting, particularly when they uphold long-standing principles that have served us well. One-person/one-vote is just such a principle, and the national popular vote compact is the way to guarantee it.

CORRECTION: Thanks to the commenters who pointed out our mistake: the first four U.S. presidents included John Adams, who was from Massachusetts. Only three of our first four presidents were Virginians.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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