Imagining elections without electors

Posted June 05, 2009, at 7:25 p.m.

Every four years, we go to the polls and make our mark or push a button next to our choice for the U.S. president. Some years, we hold our nose and hope for the best. Other years, there is someone on the ballot who actually resonates with us, someone we look forward to voting for.

Either way, as we make our mark, we are thinking about our vote for that presidential candidate when, in fact, we are voting for an elector. While we march ourselves to the polls because we feel confident in our decision, an archaic system called the Electoral College continues to prevent us from directly electing the president. When I vote, I feel like I’m voting for the president. In fact, I’m only voting for an elector.

In most years, the winner of the Electoral College happens to be the winner of the national popular vote — the popular choice of voters around the country. This was the case last year with President Obama’s election and in 2004 with President George Bush. However, had just 60,000 votes switched to John Kerry in Ohio that year, Bush would have won the popular vote and lost the general election.

And then there was the 2000 election debacle, which both sides of the aisle remain sensitive about. Bush won the Electoral College, and the presidency, while a half-million more people voted for Al Gore than Bush.

To that end, campaigns hedge their bets, investing countless resources in a handful of swing vote states where the electoral votes are the most coveted. The rest of us are chopped liver.

In 1969, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment replacing the Electoral College with the direct election of the president. Southern segregationists fought back in the Senate and stalled the debate until the issue was tabled indefinitely and then died entirely.

Following this unfortunate outcome, Maine changed its electoral vote allocation to be fairer. In the Constitution, each state retains exclusive rights to determine how it runs its own elections, including the allocation of electoral votes. Led by Rep. John Martin, legislators of the day agreed to keep Maine’s system in place until a national popular vote system was established.

The Electoral College was established to balance the desire for the direct election of the president with the desire for having Congress elect the president. At the time, mass transit and mass communication were more than 100 years away, so average voters had little opportunity to educate themselves on the candidates — assuming they could even read. It made sense at the time to elect representatives to make an informed decision about who should run the country.

Today, we have a nationwide educational system that has raised literacy rates, which in turn has led to modern day mass communication and a world where one can find resources from the remotest corners of the country and the world.

Times have changed and our system should change with it. More than 75 percent of Mainers and Americans agree it is time to move to a national popular vote system. Fortunately, our Founding Fathers paved a way for us to do so through the Constitution.

Since states can determine how they allocate their electoral votes, they can choose to allocate them to the winner of the national popular vote. If done collectively with enough votes to equal the 270 required to win the presidency, those electoral votes would effectively make the Electoral College moot. Maine is considering legislation, LD 56, that would put us at the forefront of a movement to do just that.

If we really want change, it must start with empowering people to determine the direction of the country to which they pay taxes. The National Popular Vote Compact provides an opportunity to ground our democracy in the people and fulfill the promise of one person, one vote.

Diane Russell, D-Portland, represents District 120 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a member of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

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