New Push to Pick the President by Popular Vote

By Lamb, Gregory M | The Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

New Push to Pick the President by Popular Vote


Lamb, Gregory M, The Christian Science Monitor


To John Koza's way of thinking, the United States won't be holding a true national election for president this November. And that's made him eager to make a change: Revise the system to send the candidate with the most votes to the White House.

The problem is the Electoral College, which decides the election's winner. Since electoral votes are tallied state by state, it turns out that the results from only about a quarter of the 50 states really matter. These so-called "battleground states" still have a chance to tilt toward one candidate or the other. As a result, John McCain and Barack Obama will spend nearly all their time and money campaigning in these states. "Voters in three- quarters of the states [have been] ignored, meaning that the issues of concern to voters in three-quarters of the states [have been] ignored," Mr. Koza says.

Making those neglected voters relevant is one of the chief reasons Koza founded the National Popular Vote initiative (nationalpopularvote.com) in 2006. But it's not the only reason. Four times in US history - 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 - the candidate with the most popular votes did not win the White House because he had fewer votes in the Electoral College, which is based on the size of each state's congressional delegation.

The National Popular Vote campaign encourages states to enact legislation that would give their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide, thus ensuring that the candidate with the most popular votes always wins the election.

Efforts to change or abolish the Electoral College are hardly new. Some 800 proposed amendments to get rid of it have been introduced in Congress since the early 19th century, says Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University. In the 1969-70, Congress nearly sent such legislation to President Nixon, who was ready to sign it; the amendment easily passed the House, but a filibuster by a handful of lawmakers in the Senate killed it.

Today, national and state polls consistently show about 70 percent of Americans favor direct election of the president.

The National Popular Vote drive differs in its tactics, though not its aims, from these previous efforts. Rather than a top-down strategy aimed at Congress, it seeks to enact change at the grass roots - state legislatures.

So far, four states - Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland - with 50 combined electoral votes have enacted bills that would give their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. Similar legislation has passed one or both houses in more than a dozen other states.

Once states with at least 270 combined electoral votes (the minimum needed for electing a president) enact legislation, the change would go into effect, since the winner in the Electoral College would also have to have a popular vote majority.

Koza, a computer scientist who co-invented the rub-off instant lottery ticket used by state lotteries, is a consulting professor at Stanford University. But the drive to secure a national popular vote takes most of his time.

A Constitutional 'end run'Because his organization is not seeking a constitutional amendment, opponents have charged that the effort is trying to sneak through a loophole.

"It's basically an end run around the Constitution," says Michael Hough, a spokesman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of conservative state legislators that opposes the idea. "The appropriate way would be to actually amend the Constitution," Mr. Hough says. "But they know that they can't do that because they wouldn't have the popular support, they wouldn't be able to get it through [Congress]. …

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