By John Wagner and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Maryland is poised to become the first state to agree to bypass the electoral college and effectively elect U.S. presidents by national popular vote under legislation moving briskly toward the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
But the bill comes with a big caveat: It would not take effect until enough other states agree to do the same. "It's a long way from home," said Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime."
The bill, which the Senate approved 29 to 17 yesterday, would award the state's 10 electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes nationwide -- not statewide. A similar bill was approved yesterday by a House committee and is expected to come before the full chamber today, and O'Malley signaled his backing.
Supporters of the measure, being championed by a national nonprofit group, say deciding elections by popular vote would give candidates reason to campaign nationwide and not concentrate their efforts in "battleground" states, such as Florida and Ohio, that have dominated recent elections.
Moreover, the supporters argue, such a system would prevent rare occasions, such as President Bush's 2000 victory over Al Gore, in which a candidate who wins the popular vote does not prevail in the electoral college, a fixture in U.S. elections since the nation's founding.
"Maryland could lead a national movement to popular election of a president," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a freshman lawmaker leading the charge, after the hearing.
But even some of those who voted for the measure had doubts about how soon enough other states would come on board. The agreement would not take effect until states that cumulatively hold 270 electoral votes -- the number needed to win a presidential election -- sign on.
California lawmakers passed a version of the bill last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). This year, lawmakers in one chamber of the Arkansas, Hawaii and Colorado legislatures have approved such a measure, but it has not yet made it through the other chamber, according to National Popular Vote Inc., the California-based group pushing the idea.
Ryan O'Donnell, a spokesman for the group, said lawmakers in Maryland have been receptive because it is "the classic spectator state" in presidential politics.
"I think Maryland voters are tired of being ignored, and lawmakers are reacting to that," O'Donnell said.
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor would sign the bill if it reached his desk. "He supports it, because every voter counts, and every vote should count equally," Abbruzzese said.
In another bid to become more relevant in presidential elections, Maryland lawmakers have passed legislation to move the state's 2008 primary to Feb. 12 from March 4.
Past talk about electing presidents by a national popular vote has centered on amending the U.S. Constitution, a cumbersome process that could take years. In theory, the nonprofit group's plan could be adopted more quickly.
Under the proposal, the electoral college would continue to exist but would function far differently.
Most states currently award all their electoral votes -- a number equal to the size of a state's congressional delegation -- to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state.
The proposal calls on states to award their electoral votes to the candidate with the highest vote count nationally. If enough states do that, the candidate with the most votes nationally would be guaranteed to win the election.
In addition to 2000, there have been three occasions when the winner of the popular vote did not prevail: 1824, 1876 and 1888.
Some lawmakers argued yesterday that a popular-vote plan could become unwieldy if the national count is close.
Sen. Michael G. Lenett (D-Montgomery) predicted "mass chaos" if a national recount were necessary. "While the electoral college is not flawless, the alternative might be worse," he said.
Lenett also said the system proposed could just switch the target for candidates from closely divided states to large cities with many voters -- a scenario that would not necessarily empower Maryland.
Lenett was among three Democrats who joined all 14 of the Senate's Republicans in voting against the measure.
Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) told his colleagues that they were moving too hastily. "Sometimes it's good being the first on the bandwagon, sometimes it's not."
The Senate vote sparked almost immediate action from the House Ways and Means Committee, which had been holding the bill until the other chamber acted. The panel voted along party lines to send the bill to the floor.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the legislation would pass by the end of the week. "It obviously gives Maryland more of a voice in a national election," he said. "The last couple of elections, the candidates have concentrated all their efforts in the two or three states that are going to decide the election."