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A Dubious Electoral Idea

By David S. Broder
Thursday, April 5, 2007

When it comes to persistence in pursuit of a political goal, no one can beat Birch Bayh.

It has been almost 40 years since the former Democratic senator from Indiana became the prime sponsor of a constitutional amendment for direct popular election of the president. The measure to abolish the electoral college passed the House but lost in the Senate in 1970 and again in 1979.

Bayh, now a Washington lawyer (and father of Evan Bayh, currently representing Indiana in the Senate), has never abandoned the cause. This year, he has been an unpaid but effective lobbyist in Annapolis, helping persuade the Maryland legislature to become the first in the country to endorse a plan that would -- if it succeeded -- achieve direct election of the president without the need for a constitutional amendment.

The National Popular Vote Plan, as it is known, has passed both houses of the Maryland legislature and is headed for signing by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The scheme, invented by John R. Koza, a Stanford professor, relies on the provision of the Constitution giving legislatures the power to "appoint" their presidential electors. If legislatures in enough states to make up a majority of the electoral college -- 270 electoral votes -- pledge to commit those votes to the candidate winning the national popular vote, no constitutional amendment is needed. Bayh and other high-minded individuals, such as former Illinois Republican representative John B. Anderson, a one-time independent presidential candidate, support the plan, arguing that it is a perfect expression of 21st-century democracy, while the electoral college is a relic of 18th-century thought.

All votes should count equally, no matter where they are cast, they say. Bayh told the Maryland legislators that Baltimore and Indianapolis voters are ignored by the presidential candidates because they live in states where one party dominates (Republicans in Indiana; Democrats in Maryland), while small-town voters in Ohio and Wisconsin are flooded with attention simply because their states are closely contested.

What is worse, they say, the electoral college made George W. Bush the winner in 2000 although Al Gore got half a million more votes, and such a result could happen again. Those arguments have persuaded a wide variety of others, including the New York Times editorial page and columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., to sign on to the plan.

The sincerity and stubborn persistence of Bayh and the others notwithstanding, this is a questionable proposition. No one knows what the abandonment of a federal principle -- voting by state for the highest officer in the land -- would mean for American politics and government.

The two-party system that is the underpinning of our form of representative government is supported by the electoral college, which gives each party a reliable base of support and forces them to compete fiercely for swing voters in places where they are of roughly equal strength. That mix of stability and uncertainty is the formula for healthy politics, and changing the formula should not be done casually.

A direct election scheme almost certainly would boost the already astronomical cost of presidential campaigns. It would probably offer new temptation for self-financed millionaires to run as independents, knowing that their major-party opponents would no longer have any assurance of electoral advantage.

With no runoff provision possible under this scheme, would fringe candidates be able to bargain for commitments as the price for staying out of the race? Would a Ralph Nader or a Pat Buchanan or a George Wallace have less leverage -- as Bayh contends -- or more?

These are serious questions. When Bayh's constitutional amendment was being debated in Congress, the seemingly simple argument for direct democracy was tested by consideration of the many unintended consequences of switching to a national popular vote. Senators asked what it would do to rural and urban constituencies, small states and large, minority populations and the two-party system. In the final vote in the Senate in 1979, it was defeated by a coalition of Northern liberals and Southern conservatives in Bayh's own party as well as Republicans, all of whom found things to dislike.

Those issues need airing again before such a change is made. They were not debated seriously in the Maryland legislature, and they are not likely to be in others. That's why this scheme for bypassing the amendment process is -- despite its honorable sponsorship -- a really dubious proposition.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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