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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Electing our presidents by popular vote

I’m disinclined to fault historical figures for failing to transcend the largely unquestioned beliefs and behaviors of their day. If humans survive for another century, inevitably some of ours — such as continually preparing for war and honoring those who wage it — will appear as benighted to them as owning slaves appears to us.

So, I don’t fault our Founding Fathers for not giving women the right to vote. It wasn’t even an issue then. More questionable are the ways they fudged their one indisputable advancement of democracy — namely, universal suffrage for free male citizens. In the Constitution they fudged in two ways — by denying to voters the direct election of U.S. senators and the direct election of the president and vice president. Clearly, their trust in government of and by the people was less than whole-hearted.

That first failure of trust was corrected in 1913, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The second failure has never been fully corrected; our presidents and vice presidents are still chosen by the Electoral College. Over time, state legislatures blunted the grossly undemocratic intention behind that arrangement by requiring their states’ electors to cast their votes for the ticket that won the most popular votes in their states. But absent a direct vote on a national basis, several undemocratic consequences of our system remain, the salient one being the seating of a president who receives fewer total votes than his/her opponent. This has occurred twice in the last five elections.

Amending the Constitution is a difficult process; it requires an overwhelming majority of members of Congress and state legislators. This difficulty is, arguably, wise. But abolishing the Electoral College has partisan implications that successful amendments didn’t, so partisan interests are likely to distort decision-making in this case. The chances for its passage in the near future are dim.

On the other hand, the chances for enactment of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact are excellent. It will take effect only after the legislatures of jurisdictions (states plus the District of Columbia) that among them have 270 electoral votes, which is over half the 538 vote total, approve the compact. As of this writing, 13 states plus D.C., representing 184 electoral votes, have approved. It sits on the desk on the governor of New Mexico (five votes). At some time, it has passed one chamber in another eight states with 72 electoral votes. Oregon is one of those — the House passed it in 2015 and 2017, and surely will do so again. But twice before, the companion bill died in the Senate. SB 870 is now in the Senate Rules Committee. Jeff Golden is a sponsor.

Credit for this end-around an amendment to abolish the Electoral College goes to John Koza, Barry Fadem, Mark Grueskin, Michael Mandell, Robert Ritchie and Joseph Zimmerman, who proposed it in their 2006 book “Every Vote Equal: A State-based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote,” available free at http://www.every-vote-equal.com/. The legal viability of their plan is based on provisions of the U.S. Constitution that give to the states the authority to enter into interstate compacts and to instruct their electors how they must vote. The compact requires participating states to instruct their electors to vote for the ticket that wins the most popular votes nationwide no matter which ticket wins the popular vote in their own states.

Relief may come sooner than we thought.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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