Democracy delayed: Popular vote long overdue

Massachusetts advocates for picking a president by national popular election are pushing now for a new bill and early enactment in 2009. This year the proposal was done in by delaying tactics by a handful of Republican state senators, despite overwhelming support in both branches.


The idea, to join a number of other states pledging to cast all their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner, makes sense. As soon as enough states totalling 270 electoral votes - the number needed to elect a president - have entered into a compact to have all their electoral votes go to the national popular vote winner, we can say bye-bye to the current flawed system.


The change would make individual votes in “safe” states a lot more important than they are now. Almost as certain as a sunrise is that a Democrat will carry Massachusetts in 2012 while Mississippi will go to the Republican, no matter how you vote. And all your state’s electoral votes will go to the winner.


But you could actually help decide who wins if your vote goes into an overall national count, even if the other party’s candidate carries your state. Say, hypothetically, that it’s close in 2012 between President Barack Obama and a strong Republican. Even if Obama carries Massachusetts, if all the GOP votes could be added to the national aggregate and the Republican wins that, he or she would pick up all the Bay State electoral votes.


It’s fairer, as former Gov. Michael Dukakis said this week, noting how the current system can hurt popular vote winners in both parties. He cited, of course, the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush (with the aid of Florida and the Supreme Court) eked by in an Electoral College win.


Yet Dukakis also said that if John Kerry had carried nip-and-tuck Ohio by even one vote in 2004, “he would have been president - though George Bush had more than 3 million more popular votes.” On principle, Dukakis said, “that would have been terrible.” To which Sen. Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable), quipped, “Maybe not so terrible.”


O’Leary was among those who helped score a voice-vote victory for national popular elections in the Senate this year, after passage in the House by 119-37. But the Senate’s five Republicans played a stalling game.


Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield) pledges to do the same in 2009. “We’ll filibuster, do whatever we need to,” he said, adding “The Constitution is sacred,” and if the system is to be changed, it ought to be done via constitutional amendment.


But that’s a laborious process. And the Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how their own electors will be chosen.


Rep. Charles Murphy (D-Burlington) and Common Cause of Massachusetts director Pam Wilmot said they believe (and Republican Tisei fears) they can get the bill done this year - joining four states with 50 electoral votes that have already enacted it and several others that are on the verge.


Then - irony of ironies - with their press conference over, several of the reps and others who had just been endorsing an end-run around the Electoral College, trooped over to the House press gallery to watch this year’s electors - clad in the traditional tuxedos and long dresses - cast their votes.

Date: 12/19/2008 12:00:00 AM