Spectators of the “Arab Spring” reform in the Middle East are cheering the supposed drift toward democracy in one of the world’s most undemocratic areas. This clumsy but promising transformation is understandable because the human spirit naturally yearns for popular rule. And when that spirit is empowered by the new social media, green shoots of democracy rise to the sunlight.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, a relatively obscure step in that same direction took place recently in California. Earlier this month Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that affirmed California’s enlistment in the National Popular Vote movement. Washington state earlier passed similar legislation, which essentially declares: In presidential elections, all of a state’s electoral votes will be given to the leading vote-getter nationally. This would keep a runner-up in the national vote count from becoming president, as has happened four times in our nation’s history, most recently in 2000.
None of this will matter until the National Popular Vote is enacted by enough states to form a majority of votes (270) in the Electoral College system, and that’s where California’s recent action is significant. California’s bill gets us 49 percent of the way to that destination. Eight states (the two mentioned, plus Vermont, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey) and the District of Columbia have approved the measure, representing a combined 132 of the 270 electoral votes needed.
How does this matter in Clark County? Well, as Americans we should abhor the thought of a leading vote-getter losing an election. We should be further outraged when the only time that happens in our nation is when we choose the most powerful leader in the world. It also matters to us because, as Washingtonians, we are part of the reform.
When votes don’t matter
Many of you are snarling: “The hell you say! I’m not part of your movement!” My response: Did you know that the 1.2 million votes John McCain received in our state in 2008 did not matter? Those 1.2 million voters might just as well have stayed home because all 11 of Washington’s electoral votes went to Barack Obama.
This is why 77 percent of Washingtonians want a popularly elected president, according to polls cited by nationalpopularvote.com. Approval percentages are 76 in Oregon, 75 in Idaho, 70 in California and over 60 in numerous other states red and blue.
Among many reasons for this growing consensus, five stand out:
Because of the Electoral College, campaigning presidential candidates visit only battleground states. According to nationalpopularvote.com, two-thirds of the states were ignored by presidential campaigns in 2008. In 2004, candidates spent 99 percent of their campaign money in just 16 states.
The Electoral College is especially dangerous in close elections. Republicans should be irate that a shift of only 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have denied George W. Bush the presidency and made John Kerry the winner, even though Bush won by more than 3 million votes nationwide.
The winner-take-all system of casting a state’s electoral votes is not in the Constitution, yet it’s used by all states except Maine and Nebraska. And because the Constitution allows states to determine how they cast electoral votes, a constitutional amendment to remove the Electoral College is neither required nor necessary.
Voters are smart. They know when their votes are ignored. And because of the Electoral College, voter turnout is higher in battleground states than in “spectator” states.
The Electoral College violates the one man, one vote principle. Small-population states (Wyoming) have more electoral votes per capita than heavily populated states (California).
One final point of irony: Many angry Clark County residents who are screaming for votes on light rail or a new Interstate 5 bridge or a new baseball stadium see no problem at all with forfeiting their presidential votes to our state’s majority Democrats. Those folks ought to pay closer attention. They’re setting a poor example for aspiring voters in the Middle East.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.