A winner-take-all rule has permitted a candidate to win the presidency without winning the popular vote in four out of 56 elections. Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, wants to stop that trend by implementing something called the National Popular Vote.
If enacted, Electoral College delegates from the state would be mandated to cast their votes for whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.
“It’s simple,” LeBeau said Wednesday, “the person who’s elected president becomes the president.”
The goal is to restore voter confidence in the electoral system, LeBeau said. His own confidence was shaken after the 2000 presidential elections when President George W. Bush won the election despite losing the national popular vote to candidate and former-Vice President Al Gore, he said.
But LeBeau said that the measure should be appealing to both Democrats and Republicans. During the 2004 elections, Bush could have lost despite winning the popular vote if Ohio had flipped for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, he said.
State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, agreed the measure should be a non-partisan issue.
“The idea that the person who gains the White House is not the person that receives the most votes feels so fundamentally unfair and undemocratic to any regular American citizen that you always get protest and outrage when you have that sort of difference,” he said.
Fleischmann said that historically when the candidate elected did not win the national popular vote, the consequences for the country have been bad.
In 1876, when the race between candidates Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden came down to one electoral vote, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, he said. Eventually a deal was cut where Hayes was made the winner in exchange for post-Civil War reconstruction measures trending more favorably for Southern states who opposed Hayes, he said.
“One could argue that the total disenfranchisement and repression of African Americans throughout the end of the 19th century was largely enabled by the dysfunction of the Electoral College,” he said.
He also pointed to another election in 1824, where John Quincy Adams was elected over popular vote winner Andrew Jackson, as another example of electoral dysfunction. The decision, again made in the House, led to outrage and incredibly divisive national politics for the next for years, he said.
“That precedes the existence of the Democratic and Republican parties,” he said.
But opponents of the National Popular Vote, like Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said earlier this week that it’s not what the Founding Fathers intended. He said he is a firm believer in the Electoral College.
Ryan O’Donnell, regional organizer for the National Popular Vote coalition, said it preserves the Electoral College votes by awarding them to the states. He said the problem isn’t with the Electoral College system, it’s the fact that all the votes go to one candidate, and there is no second place.
But aside from the politics of elections, O’Donnell said there are far reaching implications for states. This is a case where “politics influences policy,” he said. The states that receive the most funding once someone is elected are often swing states like Florida and Ohio.
The current system also has a distorting effect on national politics, Fleischmann said. During campaign season presidential candidates spend all of their time and resources in battleground states, he said. In 2010, sixteen states got about 98 percent of all the resources used by the two major presidential campaigns, he said.
“And other states like California and New York and Connecticut get entirely ignored,” he said.
The distortions continue after the election is over and the winner takes office, he said. The amount of federal dollars directed towards swing states like Ohio and Florida is disproportionate to their populations but representative of their electoral importance, he said.
Fleischmann said it’s important for people to understand that the measure does not conflict with anything in the U.S. Constitution. Each state is given the right to apportion its electoral votes however its state legislation sees fit, he said.
“So it is completely in line with the Constitution for Connecticut and other states to say we’d like our electors to vote the way the majority of Americans voted, that’s our right as a state,” he said.
A similar bill failed to come to a vote in the state Senate in 2009 after barely passing in the House of Representatives, but LeBeau said the fate of the bill’s predecessors doesn’t concern him.
“People send me ideas and I call through them and see what makes sense,” he said, adding that this is the first time he has raised such a bill. “This just makes sense.”
Currently six states and the District of Columbia have joined the interstate compact for the national popular vote. They amount to 74 electoral votes of the 270 needed to make the compact effective. If the bill were to be signed into law, Connecticut would add its seven electoral votes to the compact.