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Elect President by Popular Vote

The Most Significant Development in Generations That No One Is Talking About


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

If the choice were yours, would you like to have the president of the United States elected by the current method, i.e., the electoral college system, or would you like to see the presidential candidate who received the most votes nationwide be elected to the office?

If you said “Yes” to the latter, you should know you are part of a vast majority. Seventy percent of the people in this country would like to see the presidential candidate who gets the most votes nationally win the office. And there are similar majorities in individual states: Massachusetts, 72%; Iowa, 75%; Colorado, 68%; California, 70%; Maine, 77%, etc., etc., etc.

How are we electing our president now? What exactly is the nature of the current system?

The Constitution reads: “Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors …”

The Constitution provides that each state shall have a number of electors equal to its number of senators (two per state) plus the number of representatives it has in Congress; and later it added three for the District of Columbia.

At present, a majority of these 538 people elects our president.

But the Constitution does not specify that all electors in a given state shall vote for the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in that state. (In the first election ever held in this country in 1789, only three states gave the votes of all its electors to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.) Currently, 48 of our 50 states have that practice. The two states that do it differently, Maine and Nebraska, depend on votes in the congressional districts.

The Constitution does not even guarantee that you or I have a right to vote for president, or that the electors’ choice shall be the result of a popular election. The method is totally at the discretion of the states.

So if we, this large majority, are dissatisfied with the current practice, why hasn’t someone devised a system—a plan—whereby we can have what we want: our president elected by a national popular vote?

William Smithers
Click to enlarge photo

William Smithers

They have. A nonpartisan group of wise men, Democrats and Republicans, have proposed an interstate agreement, a “compact between the states,” whereby each signing state agrees that when (and only when) the total of signatories reaches 270 electoral votes—the number required to elect a president—each signing state will cast all of its electors’ votes for the presidential candidate who has received the most popular votes nationwide.

This solution is simple and brilliant, and since constitutionally each state has complete discretion as to how its electors are chosen, and how they shall vote, there’s no need for a constitutional amendment or constitutional convention.

So if this solution is simple and brilliant, why aren’t states adopting it?

They are. As of this writing, eight states have passed the National Popular Vote bill (identically worded in each case) into law: Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington State, Hawai'i, Vermont, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, totaling 27 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed for activation. Individual legislatures in many other states have passed the bill or have it moving through their systems.

So if this is such a great idea, implementing what so many want, and if so many states are joining this compact, why aren’t we in California on board?

I’m glad you asked.

In 2006, both legislative houses in California passed the National Popular Vote bill. It was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2008, again, both California legislatures passed the National Popular Vote bill into law. Again—figuratively spitting in the faces of the 70 percent of us who want to be able to elect our country’s president in this way—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Did you see this on the evening news? I didn’t. Did you see it in headlines in the next day’s papers? I didn’t.

That’s why I call this the most significant political development in generations that no one is talking about.

But now, with a new governor, we can hope that a third push to enact the National Popular Vote bill in this state will be successful. And imagine the impetus it will have when we Californians add our 55 electoral votes—the most of any state in the union—to this nonpartisan compact between the states.

So please take note: The third push has begun! On March 31, 2011, in the California Assembly, Democratic Party Caucus Chair Jerry Hill and Republican Party Caucus Chair Brian Newsstand introduced and sponsored the National Popular Vote bill (AB 459)! Assemblymember Das Williams of Santa Barbara is a co-author. It is now going before the full Assembly.

This is what we’ve been waiting for!

Let us in California, at last, support a fully democratic way to elect the president of the United States.

William Smithers, of Santa Barbara, is an Obie Award-winning actor/director who has appeared in nearly 400 television productions. From 2003-2005, he produced and directed the Santa Barbara Theatre of the Air, broadcasting works of classic and contemporary playwrights on KCSB. Currently, he and his wife, Lorrie Hull Smithers, co-host the Channel 17 television program Just Between Us! He is also on the Santa Barbara Channels Board of Directors.

This article has been amended since its original publication to reflect that fact that Assemblymember Das Williams is a co-author of AB 459.

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