Washington — The question of how we elect a president is up for debate again, with advocates of a majoritarian philosophy having invented a new device for moving to a direct popular vote for the chief executive.
Rather than going through the labors of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College system with a national tally for president, which has failed every time it has been attempted, they have come up with a plan for bypassing the required two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and the ratification by three-fourths of the states.
Instead, the advocates propose that states with sufficient electoral votes - 270 of the 538 - to comprise an electoral majority enter into an interstate compact, pledging to give their votes to the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes. That action could allow the legislatures of as few as 11 states to change the whole system of electing a president.
The proposal arrives with notable sponsorship. It was introduced this winter by John Anderson, the former congressman from Illinois and independent presidential candidate in 1980; former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, who sponsored a direct-election constitutional amendment a generation ago; Chellie Pingree, the president of Common Cause; and others drawn from both parties.
It has been endorsed by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and, earlier this month, by the editorial page of The New York Times, which called the Electoral College "an antidemocratic relic." Rob Richie, spokesman for the sponsoring organization, says bipartisan bills have been introduced in California and Illinois, with expressions of interest coming from many other states. He expects it to be debated in almost every legislature next year.
The reasons they give for making the change include the fact that in 2000, the Electoral College system - which gives all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of its popular vote, no matter how small the margin - made George Bush a winner despite Al Gore gaining more popular votes nationally, an offense to those who want majority rule.
The sponsors also have noticed that presidential campaigns target battleground states while ignoring others in their advertising and campaign schedules. Thus Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin get more attention than New York or Texas. And since the number of battleground states has been shrinking, they say, more and more of the country is shut out of participation in the campaign.
So, they argue, let's move to a system where all votes count equally, because that will force the candidates to campaign and advertise everywhere.
That argument is a bit curious. It seems to assume that voters in New York and Texas are somehow excluded from awareness of everything that happens in the campaign - as if the newspapers and TV stations in their states were not covering it every day.
Meantime, it ignores the implications of a direct election plan for two of the fundamental characteristics of the American scheme of government, the federal system and the two-party system.
It is no accident that the Founders chose to elect the president by counting votes in the states, since they wanted to emphasize that this is a federal republic with sovereignty shared between the states and Washington. Past efforts to abolish the Electoral College have foundered on the objections of small states, which worry that they would be ignored in the pursuit of giant voting blocs in big-population centers. Have their claims no merit?
As for the party system, past proposals for direct election have snagged on the question of allowing a simple plurality to win or requiring a runoff if no candidate receives more than, say, 40 percent of the vote. Richie conceded in an interview that no runoff provision would be possible under this scheme unless all 50 states agreed - an unlikely eventuality.
Richie argued that the temptation for a third- or fourth-party candidate entering the race - in order to tilt the outcome of the popular vote - would be less than in the present system, where a minor candidate can hope to tip the result in particular closely contested states.
But that is speculation. The reality is we don't know how a Ralph Nader or a Ross Perot or a Pat Buchanan or a George Wallace would see his potential leverage in a direct-election system with no runoff requirement.
That is why a change of this scale requires careful consideration - something the amendment process provides and this mechanism is designed to circumvent. A change of this sort should not be created by 11 of the 50 state legislatures.