Having seen the loser of the national popular vote win the White House in two of the last five presidential elections, I’ve been aware for years of the inequity of the current winner-take-all system of assigning states’ electoral votes. But winner-take-all does a disservice even when it “works,” that is, when the Electoral College winner is also the candidate for whom the most ballots were cast.
Three years ago I was excited when my daughter made her decision about where to go to college. Along with the wonderful things about the college she chose, I was glad it was in Pennsylvania so she could register and vote there. I knew that her vote would matter in swing state Pennsylvania, whereas here in Connecticut it would not since for the past quarter-century our state has always voted Democratic.
Presidential candidates put all their attention on 10 or so battleground states. Whether you look at ad spending, the number of campaign events, or more importantly the topics they discuss, it’s pretty obvious that safe states — be they Democratic or Republican — are mere spectators in the general election. Of nearly 400 general election campaign events in last year’s election, 94 percent were held in the battleground states. Only one was held in Connecticut.
It doesn’t make sense that in the world’s greatest democracy the power of our vote depends on where we live. It makes no sense that because of the winner-take-all-method of casting electoral votes approximately 70 percent of the nation effectively has no say in selecting the leader of our country.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a simple solution to elect the President according to the will of the majority. States that join the Compact pledge to vote all of their electors for the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states. The Compact comes into force once it has been adopted by states that collectively have 270 electoral votes, the number needed to elect the President.
Electing the candidate who receives the most popular votes while working within the Constitutional framework of the Electoral College is a practical way to get our nation closer to the concept of “one person, one vote.” Many voters in Connecticut believe the current system isn’t worthy of our democracy. Public polling conducted a few years ago found that nearly three-quarters of Connecticut voters prefer a national popular vote to winner-take-all.
State Reps. James Albis and Matt Lesser introduced HB 5434, a bill to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that is now before the General Administration and Elections (GAE) Committee. It has 26 co-sponsors, a sign of the broad support it has in the legislature.
Interest in the Compact extends beyond the General Assembly. A statewide volunteer citizens’ movement, National Popular Vote CT, has been gaining momentum ever since the election prompted interest among the many progressive activist groups that formed in the wake of Trump’s election. In a display of force that caught the attention of many in Hartford, more than one hundred advocates of the Compact took a day off from work or school last month to attend the GAE Committee’s public hearing because making their votes matter really matters to them.
Republican members of the Committee spent more than eight hours challenging the merits of the Compact as they questioned members of the public testifying in favor of the Compact. Senator McLachlan tried to delegitimize the Compact by asserting that it is an “end run” around the Constitution that effectively abolishes the Electoral College, or as one legislator has said, “that’s the way the founding fathers wanted it.”
As befits our federal system of government, the Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to vote their electors. It reads, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” It wasn’t until the 1820s that states began adopting the winner-take-all method of voting electors. By then most of the founding fathers were dead. Not a word about winner-take-all appears in the Constitution.
Another argument put forward in the name of the founding fathers is that the Compact is contrary to the principle that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.
However, as the term is used in the Constitution, a republican form of government is when citizens do not rule directly, but instead elect officeholders to represent them and conduct the business of government in the period between elections. That doesn’t change based on how a state votes its electors. We will continue to be a constitutional democracy under the Compact.
Opponents have voiced one of the more common criticisms: that the Compact will disenfranchise Connecticut voters because the state may cast its electoral votes for a candidate who did not win our state’s popular vote. In the last election, 673,215 Connecticut voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump. Because we use winner-take-all, their votes made absolutely no difference to the outcome. They could have all stayed home and the Electoral College count for Trump would have been exactly the same. How is a voter disenfranchised when his or her vote counts toward the total received by each candidate? It does exactly the opposite; it makes their votes matter.
Saying our votes don’t matter because the nation votes differently than Connecticut is like saying a town’s voters are disenfranchised because the majority in the town voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate but the state went Democratic. There is no such thing as the “Connecticut vote.” Individuals cast votes; that’s how they should be reflected in vote counts, as they do every other election in the country.
Another refrain, also not valid, is that big cities would determine the presidency under the Compact. There are fewer than 50 cities with a population of more than 500,000. It’s the 87 percent of the population living outside large cities that would have voting power in a direct election. Proof of this is that candidates for U.S. Senate do not campaign in just Stamford, Hartford and Bridgeport. They campaign across the state because every voter is as important as the next, and cities alone do not determine the election. These critics also conveniently ignore that today our entire state is ignored! Someone opposed to the Compact posted on Facebook, “If a popular vote were to decide the president, there would be no battleground states.” He’s right, and that would be a good thing. Voters in Connecticut would matter, whether they vote Republican or Democratic.
Some have proposed the Congressional District Method used by Maine and Nebraska as a better alternative. Electoral votes are assigned based on the popular vote in each district, and the overall winner captures the two extra votes representing their two Senators. It sounds more fair than winner-take-all, but in fact it’s much worse.
As a result of gerrymandering, the vast majority of Congressional districts are reliably blue or red. Candidates would have no need to campaign except in competitive districts. According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, only 33 of the 435 House seats are competitive. Instead of a dozen battleground states deciding who should be president, it would be determined by 33 “battleground districts” that account for only eight percent of the U.S. population!
With no justification, the Compact is viewed as a partisan response to the 2016 election. The Compact has been considered by the legislature five times over the past 10 years; the rigorously non-partisan League of Women Voters endorses it. President Trump supports the popular vote, saying in a 60 Minutes interview after the election, “I would rather see it where you went with simple votes.” In 2014 Newt Gringrich wrote, “America would be better served with a presidential election process that treated citizens across the country equally. The National Popular Vote bill accomplishes this.”
Citizens frequently say, “one person, one vote” when talking about our democracy. Unfortunately we aren’t living up to its true meaning. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is the most practical way to achieve that principle. If you agree, contact your state legislators now to tell them you support HB 5434.
Jonathan Perloe is a spokesperson for National Popular Vote CT, a grassroots movement advocating for adoption of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact by the Connecticut General Assembly.
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