Vermont last week became the latest state to join the drive for a popularly elected president. The little state with just three electoral votes approved a measure that would assure the top vote-getter of becoming the most powerful person in the world.
Our state did the same thing two years ago, and now seven states have enlisted in a crusade that would not replace the Electoral College (that would require amending the Constitution) but would make the antiquated system subject to the will of the people.
Here’s how the reform known as National Popular Vote (http://www.nationalpopularvote.com) would work: A compact is being forged (already including Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington). When enough states to account for 270 electoral votes join the compact, all electors from those states would agree to vote for the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide. That number is key, because 270 is the minimum number of electoral votes to win the presidency. Vermont’s three bring to 77 the total embraced to date by the compact, or 28.5 percent of what’s needed. (Washington state has 11 electoral votes, increasing to 12 next year when redistricting adds a 10th representative to the U.S. House.)
It’s no secret the National Popular Vote reform has been embraced mostly by liberal-leaning states so far. What’s not well-known is that Americans overwhelmingly want this reform to happen. National polls consistently show approval higher than 71 percent. Statewide polls show approval never lower than 68 percent; 33 states show approval at 70 percent or higher (77 percent in Washington).
Why is this momentum building? And why is approval so widespread? Because most Americans shudder at the possibility of a winner being declared a loser. We allow the chance of such a blunder in no other election in our representative republic.
Complaints easily refuted
Predictably, status-quo-worshipping traditionalists continue to swim against the current of conventional wisdom. Two of their main arguments are, in fact, self-defeating contentions that actually support the proposed reform. “It’s even worse now” is the response inspired by these two arguments:
• If we honor the popular vote, only a few states could dominate a presidential election, or so goes the complaint. Yes, it’s mathematically possible for only 11 states to popularly elect a president, but that’s only if all 11 states vote 100 percent for one candidate, and for that candidate to draw no votes in the other 39 states. Obviously, that will never happen. Even if this is a concern, the current procedure is even worse because of the winner-take-all system of electoral votes. In 48 states (including Washington) all electoral votes go to the popular winner in each respective state. Thus, currently, a candidate can win the presidency by winning just 51 percent of the popular vote in the 11 largest states.
While I’m on this subtopic, let me remind the 1.2 million Washingtonians who voted for John McCain in 2008: Your votes didn’t mean squat. All 11 electoral votes from Washington went to Barack Obama, and the Electoral College is all that counts. It’s as if those 1.2 million people never voted; they had no more influence on the election than their dogs or cats. How disenfranchised does that make them feel?
• The other complaint about the National Popular Vote plan (sending all electoral votes to the national popular winner) is that it would cause voters to revolt in a state where electoral votes went to a candidate who did not carry that particular state. Again, though, the current system is even worse. If you don’t believe me, ask those 1.2 million Washingtonians whose votes did not count. At least under the proposed reform, their votes would count in the running total nationwide.
Throughout this debate, one bedrock principle must reign supreme: There is never anything wrong with the leading vote-getter winning an election. The fact that exceptions have tarnished four of 56 presidential elections in our great but imperfect form of government will never undermine that bedrock principle. It’s time for Americans to make sure the winners win.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.