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Steven Hill: National direct election of the president is good for California

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has sitting on his desk a bill that he ought to
sign. Signing AB 2948 would establish California as a national leader in the
effort to create a nationwide popular vote for president, which recent
elections have shown would be a more democratic method than the 18th Century
Electoral College.

Unfortunately, AB 2948 has become bogged down in the usual divisive partisan
sand-box squabbling that afflicts our national politics. Democratic
legislators voted to pass this bill with near unanimity, while Republican
legislators treated this legislative bill as if it is radioactive. Perhaps
the Republican view opposing changes to how we elect the president has
become skewed by the 2000 election, where Al Gore won the national popular
vote but lost the Electoral College vote and the presidency.

But this is a misreading of the partisan consequences of the Electoral
College. In fact, the current method nearly cost George W. Bush the
presidency in the 2004 election. If a mere 60,000 voters in Ohio had changed
their minds and voted for Democrat John Kerry instead of President Bush,
Kerry would have won the presidency even though he still would have lost the
national popular vote to Bush by 3 million votes. No doubt if that had
occurred, quite a few more Republicans would be questioning the relevance of
the Electoral College.

But, beyond partisan considerations, there are other reasons that the
Electoral College–which has not been copied by any states to elect governors
and by no other democracy around the world–is failing our country. Its
greatest defect is that it turns what should be a national election into one
where only a handful of states and a handful of voters matter. Voters are
treated differently based on where you live.

In this era of Red vs. Blue America, most states have become lopsided
strongholds for one of the two major parties. No more than 10 out of 50
states are up for grabs, the rest–including our three largest states,
California, Texas and New York–are predictably safe for one party or the
other. In fact, months before the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, it
was obvious that the elections would be decided in only two states: Ohio and
Florida.

All the other states, and the voters who live in them, were ignored. The
candidates did not visit most states, they didn’t even spend money on TV ads
in most states. And the 2008 presidential election likely will be decided in
Ohio and Florida as well.

But it gets worse. In the modern era of campaigning, political strategists
are guided by polls and focus groups to figure out which Ohioans or
Floridians are comfortably in one camp or the other, and which voters are
undecided. All campaign appeals and TV ads then are targeted at the
undecided voters–the infamous swing voters. The issues of the presidential
election thus become ones that appeal to a small number of voters.

So, what should be a national election in which the candidates are debating
the most pressing issues of our times instead becomes one decided by a
handful of voters in a handful of states. The issues are dumbed down to
those that pander to a small minority. All other voters, and the issues they
care about, are left on the political sidelines. Most voters don’t even need
to bother showing up, and the campaign strategists know it.

This is leading to the impoverishment of our national politics, since most
voters are not engaged during the most important of our elections. So, the
current Electoral College system is not good for Republicans, Democrats or
for Americans. It is a product of another century, and the readings of
Madison’s recordings of the Constitutional Convention reveal that its design
was not one founded on the framers’ brilliance, but rather drafted by a
confused group of men who had no precedents to guide them. The Electoral
College broke down within the first couple of elections, prompting the
passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

Now, in the 21st century, it is creating havoc again, and it is time to
shove the indirect election of our president into the historical dustbin,
just as our nation once did when we passed the 17th Amendment to require
direct election of United States senators.

The bill sitting on Schwarzenegger’s desk takes baby steps toward creating a
national direct election. Rather than passing a constitutional amendment, AB
2948 utilizes the ability of states to enter into treaties with each other
to award each state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular
vote. Once a critical mass of states wielding a majority of electoral votes
(currently at least 270) has agreed to the treaty, only then would it go
into effect among all those states. At that point, the presidential election
would become a de facto national popular vote.

So, signing this bill does not commit California to any change until a
majority of Americans in other states enact the treaty as well. By signing
AB 2948, Gov. Schwarzenegger will show Californians–indeed the nation–how to
rise above knee-jerk partisan reaction and do what is right for our state
and our country.


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