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Bypassing the Electoral College

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, April 2, 2007

"The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States. . . . "

That is not some reactionary piece of propaganda denying your right to choose the next president. It is one of the more memorable sentences from the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, the hard-to-forget 2000 case that put the current occupant in the White House.

And strictly speaking, the court was right. As the majority opinion went on to note, we have the right to use our ballots to pick members of the electoral college -- which in turn chooses the president -- because every state legislature has decided on "statewide election" as the way to get the job done. In theory, legislatures have the power to pick electors without even consulting the voters.

The American way of electing presidents is antiquated, impractical and dangerous. It is odd indeed that in 2000, a nation devoted to spreading democracy throughout the world gave power to a man who received 543,895 fewer votes than his opponent. Under our system, George W. Bush's disputed 537-vote margin in Florida was deemed more important than Al Gore's half-million-ballot advantage nationwide.

And please, dear Republican friends, don't shout "Get over it!" Think back to 2004, when Bush defeated John Kerry by 3 million votes nationally. If just 59,300 people in Ohio had voted for Kerry instead of Bush, Kerry would have won the electoral college and become president. You can write the scripts for the Fox News commentaries about Kerry stealing the White House.

It does not have to be this way. As someone who lives in Maryland, I am proud that my state may pioneer a process that could lead to popular election of the president. The state Senate passed a bill last Wednesday that would commit Maryland's 10 electors to voting for the winner of the nationwide popular vote. The bill is expected to pass in the House of Delegates this week, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign it.

The law would not take effect unless states representing a 270-vote electoral college majority pass similar laws. The idea is to create a compact among states genuinely committed to popular rule.

Yes, this is an effort to circumvent the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. That's the only practical way of moving toward a more democratic system. Because three-quarters of the states have to approve an amendment to the Constitution, only 13 sparsely populated states -- overrepresented in the electoral college -- could block popular election.

Remember, states get one electoral vote for each member of the House of Representatives plus both senators. No matter how small, every state has at least three electoral votes. The three electors from Wyoming, with an estimated 2006 population of 515,004, represent 171,668 people each. California, with a population of 36,457,549, gets 55 electors, each representing 662,865 people. A presidential vote cast in Wyoming thus has nearly four times the value of a vote in California.

The democratic solution is for legislatures to agree to use their electoral votes to support the winner nationally. Devised by John R. Koza, a consulting professor at Stanford University -- he also invented the scratch-off lottery ticket -- the idea has been advanced by the National Popular Vote campaign and, in Maryland, by state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a longtime champion of more democratic election and campaign finance laws. Comparable bills have been approved by one legislative chamber in Arkansas, Hawaii and Colorado.

Opponents of popular election invent scary scenarios to continue subjecting our 21st-century nation to a system invented in the far less democratic 18th century. Most frequently, they warn about having to conduct a nationwide recount in a close election.

But direct election of presidents works just fine in France and in Mexico, which managed to get through a divisive, terribly narrow presidential election last year. Are opponents of the popular vote saying our country is less competent at running elections than France or Mexico?

Here's hoping Maryland sets off a quiet revolution that brings our nation's electoral practice into line with our democratic rhetoric. Individual citizens should have the right to elect their president -- directly.

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