Time to alter the Electoral College

Earlier this month, New Jersey joined Maryland to become the second state to pass a law that would see to it, for the first time in our history, that the candidate who gets the most votes always becomes president of the United States.

That doesn't always happen, as we were tragically reminded in 2000 when George W. Bush was awarded Florida's disputed electoral votes by the Supreme Court and became president even though Al Gore received a half a million more votes. It also happened three other times, to Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Grover Cleveland in 1888. That's four times too many for a democracy.

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That the people of the United States should always elect the president of the United States does not appear to be a radical concept, but it has been an impossible dream because of the existence of the Electoral College. Each state has electors equal to its House membership and its two senators, and they legally elect the president and vice president. This quaint institution is enshrined in the Constitution and will remain there unless it is abolished by two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the 50 state legislatures.

The Electoral College was established to protect the smaller states in the loose confederation of 13 states that was then the new United States. It was feared candidates would ignore smaller states, which they now do, along with some bigger states, despite the existence of the Electoral College.

In every state but Maine and Nebraska, the state's winning presidential candidate takes all the electoral votes, making the votes cast for the losing candidate worthless. The winner in California, for example, gets all the state's 54 electoral votes whether he or she wins by 3 million votes or by three. A few lopsided state results can mess up the electoral vote and thwart the will of the voters.

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This should make voters angry but it doesn't appear to and the Electoral College remains as secure as any of our institutions. That's why some thoughtful reformers have come up with a creative way to get around it. It's called the Campaign for a National Popular Vote and it asks each state legislature to enact a law that would instruct its Electoral College to award its votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the state.

The Constitution instructs each state to appoint its electors "in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." A legislature could therefore direct its electors to give the state's electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes nationwide. The Electoral College could continue to perform its constitutional function but in a purely ceremonial fashion. Its only duty would be to meet 41 days after the election and ratify the fact that the candidate with the most votes in the entire country won.

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As a result, presidential campaigns would become truly national, with candidates seeking votes across the country, rather than concentrating on the "battleground states" where the results are a tossup. In 2004, the candidates for president and vice president attended 291 campaign events and 268 of them were in the 13 battleground states, according to The New Yorker. In Connecticut, candidates mostly drop by for money.

Bills to reform the electoral vote have been introduced in most states, including Connecticut, where it went nowhere last year. It is being reintroduced by Rep. Andrew Fleischmann.

You would have thought the 2000 election would have prompted states to make repairs in the Electoral College, but it didn't happen. Let's hope we don't have to have another election in which the loser becomes president before this centuries-old mistake is corrected.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. E-mail him at dahles@hotmail.com.


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