From the Capitol / State Rep. John Hetherington
The national popular (but not majority) vote
Published 7:35 pm, Wednesday, March 30, 2011
You might think that our General Assembly has enough to worry about, considering Connecticut's record deficits and debt. But apparently not in the view of some legislators who want to change the way we elect the President of the United States. The initiative is called "National Popular Vote," but in fact it diminishes the importance of majority rule.
According to the proposal, Connecticut would join other states in a compact, agreeing that the electoral votes of each participating state would be cast for the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationally. It would not matter how the citizens of a particular state voted. So, for example, if you had voted for John Kerry in 2004 along with a majority of Connecticut voters, our state's electoral votes would nevertheless have been cast for George Bush because, across the country, Bush received more popular votes. A little hard for some voters to accept perhaps, but justified on the basis that it prevents the Electoral College from circumventing the will of the people. Proponents of the plan point to Presidential Elections of 1876 and 2000 when the candidate with a majority of the popular vote did not win a majority of the electoral vote.
But wait a minute. National Popular Vote doesn't say anything about a majority of the popular vote. The plan makes the election of a President turn simply on who wins more votes than anyone else, even if not a majority. In fact, the more candidates who enter the contest, the smaller the percentage required to elect the President. So, this plan actually diminishes the importance of the majority. By increasing the theoretical possibility of winning without a majority, the plan provides an enhanced opportunity to win for a candidate outside of the mainstream. Considering the undisputed rise in the number of independent voters, it is possible to envision future elections with a field of three or more viable candidates, and a victory for someone holding a very weak mandate. Weakening our democracy in the future is a high price to pay to avenge the outcome of some past election.
The question of enforcement raises another concern. The proposed pact is among states, not the electors who would not be parties to the pact. So Connecticut law would have to change so that the state, not the people, would direct the electors how to vote in the Electoral College. Assuming that were constitutional, what if Connecticut electors refused to defy the will of Connecticut voters in choosing a President? Would the electors be sued, fined or jailed? If enough still refused, would the election result remain uncertain?
It is worth at least a passing note that Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution provides that no state shall, without the consent of Congress, enter into a compact or agreement with any other state. While unapproved compacts have been created for many non-federal matters and the Supreme Court has not interpreted the clause since 1935, an unapproved pact among states to elect the President of the United States might just awaken new interest in the compact clause.
Finally, the National Popular Vote plan is unnecessary because there are other ways to avoid the claimed flaws of the Electoral College. Maine, for example, has ended the winner-take-all system of choosing presidential electors. With six electoral votes (one for each congressman and senator), Maine allows voters in each congressional district separately to elect an elector for a presidential candidate, and awards the remaining two to the overall state winner. This system is democratic, simple to administer and can be set up by the legislature right away without any action by other states.
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National Popular Vote is a poorly conceived plan that invites litigation and uncertainty, and may even raise risks for a stable democratic government. If we are troubled by the Electoral College system, there are better ways to deal with it. We should reject CT House Bill 6163 and return to the immediate challenges we face in saving Connecticut's future.