Patrick Calder’s March 7 OpEd, “Why national popular vote is bad for Maine,” nicely, though inadvertently, underscores why the Maine Legislature would be wise to pass LD 816 and award its Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote (once enough states have agreed to do the same).
In one revealing passage, Calder argues in favor of the Electoral College by asking whether “the needs of the people of Los Angeles County” outweigh the needs of “rural Maine.” He then asks whether “Los Angeles” needs more affordable energy, and whether “they” need better rural infrastructure. By interchangeably referring to people, to a county, to a general geographic area, to a city, and then to an undefined “they,” Calder fails to make clear who or what the Electoral College seeks to empower. This confusion does not owe to Calder, however, but to the underlying incoherence of the Electoral College itself.
One basic observation should guide consideration of this issue: whether you believe humans were put on Earth by a deity or by undirected forces of nature, neither one created states, counties, cities, school districts, water districts, or any other form of government subdivision. Flesh and blood human beings created them all for one purpose only: to assist in the project of improving human lives. If the concept of a water district proves enduringly useless in this effort, we can and should get rid of it.
What then of our federal government and its executive branch? Again, they must have only one purpose: serving as institutions useful to human beings in improving the lives of other human beings. If they are not structured to benefit human beings, they must be revised. This may seem uncontroversial when stated so plainly, but this brings us back to the confusing language in Calder’s piece.
Arguments in favor of the Electoral College, such as Calder’s become confused because the Electoral College itself rests upon an incoherent theory of political justice. According to FiveThirtyEight’s voter power index, which set forth the relative likelihood that an individual voter in a particular state would determine the winner of the 2016 presidential election, a voter in Pennsylvania was approximately three times more likely to determine the outcome than a voter in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. But a voter in Maine’s 2nd District was roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to determine the outcome than a voter in the 1st Congressional District. A North Carolina voter had more power than a Virginia voter, while a Rhode Island voter had more power than a Vermont voter, who in turn had more power than a North Dakota voter, according to the index.
These disparities cannot be justified, including on grounds advanced by proponents of the Electoral College. They do not concern population size, geography, rural character, or any other metric, even if one agreed such metrics should determine political power. Ultimately, the Electoral College empowers only the voters in those states that happen to be closely divided in any given election year. Accordingly, the location of voters who have disproportionate power shifts from one presidential year to the next, as the political climate changes within states over time.
None of this has anything to do with a coherent philosophy of governance, thus giving rise to the shifting arguments Calder makes. We have bound ourselves to an institution in the Electoral College that arbitrarily throws political power around with little consideration of fairness or equality and on the basis of criteria that cannot possibly be relevant. The only approach that makes sense is to treat every single American voter — not states, areas, or places — the same when it comes to electing the president. LD 816 vindicates this important principle. The Legislature should pass, and Gov. Janet Mills should sign, this important bill as soon as possible.
Nolan L. Reichl is an attorney who resides in Cape Elizabeth.