By Jonathan Chait
Imagine that the Constitution devised by the founders decreed that the presidency went to the winner of the popular vote. Now imagine that some reformers came along and proposed to scrap the popular vote and replace it with a convoluted process involving an electoral college that, among other bizarre flaws, gave the citizens of some states far more voting power than others and allowed for the candidate who didnt get the most votes to win the presidency. Would anybody take them seriously? No, theyd be laughed out of the room.
With the passage of time, the loopiest ideas can obtain the veneer of plausibility, even wisdom. No sane person would choose the electoral college if we were devising the system from scratch today. The main reason we still have it is that we would need a constitutional amendment to elect our presidents by popular vote, and passing such an amendment would be nearly impossible.
Any constitutional amendment, which requires passage in three-fourths of the state legislatures, is hard to pass. Abandoning the electoral college is a unique challenge. Small states enjoy disproportionate power. (Wyoming has one electoral vote for every 167,000 citizens, while California has one for every 645,000.) Because small states have even more disproportionate power to block a constitutional amendment -- in theory, less than 5 percent of the population residing in the 13 smallest states could block one -- they can protect their own privileges.
This brutal calculus has long blocked any reform. But a new group, the Campaign for the National Popular Vote, has proposed an ingenious solution. States, under the Constitution, can allocate their electoral votes any way they see fit. The campaign proposes to secure legislation -- state by state -- to allocate votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. As soon as youve signed up enough states to get 270 electoral votes, you have a de facto popular vote system in place. Its an end run around the small-state veto.
This reform proposal is sufficiently feasible that the defenders of the electoral college have begun raising a small hue and cry. David Broder, a longtime Washington Post columnist and Sunday talk-show mainstay, writes that the small states worry that they would be ignored in the pursuit of giant voting blocs in big population centers. In reality, the small states are ignored already.
Presidential candidates almost never campaign in the mountain West -- it was huge news when Bill Clinton made a stop in Montana in 1992. In fact, campaigns ignore most of the country. Candidates spend precious little time in California, Texas, the Deep South or New England (outside of New Hampshire).
In addition to fusty traditionalists, youve got hysterical GOP partisans. Rep. John T. Doolittle of California was sufficiently exercised to write, on the conservative blog redstate.org: The left in America is nothing if not creative. Knowing that they cant beat us using existing election law, they have started a state by state effort to change the rules so their blue states can unilaterally decide who will win the highest office in the land. The left-wing politicos in America know that turning the national elections into populist referendums will benefit their candidates.
Im not taking Doolittle out of context here. This is his argument in its entirety. Doolittle seems to think that the blue states alone can impose this change. But, of course, the blue states dont have the needed 270 electoral vote majority, which is why, as Doolittle may have noticed, Republicans occupy the White House.
Or maybe Doolittle hasnt noticed. How else to explain his fear that turning the national elections into populist referendums will let the left sweep into power? Its almost as if he thinks the Republicans are some tiny, unpopular faction kept in power only by an undemocratic mechanism.
Cheer up, Rep. Doolittle. Your party did manage to win the popular vote in one of the last four presidential elections, after all.
(Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.)
Special to the Los Angeles Times