Don’t look now, but suddenly the most interesting political struggles in the nation this summer have nothing to do with the midterm congressional elections.
Let me do what columnists do best — oversimplify complex questions in the name of summarizing them and using a sports metaphor to do it.
Some people who didn’t like the way the 2000 election turned out are trying to overturn the Electoral College with a power sweep around the Constitution. At the same time, some people who didn’t like the results of the 2008 election are trying to overturn the 17th Amendment with a double-reverse around the popular election of senators.
If they both prevail, the political system that emerges will be unrecognizable, except of course if you were around to vote in 1788, when the president won every electoral vote and when U.S. senators were selected by state legislators. Otherwise, everything changes.
Here’s what might happen if these two efforts succeed: A large number of states would designate their electoral votes to the candidate who won the popular vote in the presidential election, even if their own citizens overwhelmingly rejected that candidate. And the practice of the public election of U.S. senators, part of the American political landscape for a century, would be abandoned and members of the world’s most deliberative body would no longer be chosen by the members of the world’s oldest democracy.
The result would be that the people of Wyoming, where only 32.5 percent of the voters backed Barack Obama for president in 2008, would have watched their electoral votes be shoved into the Obama column, along with those of Utah and Oklahoma, both of which gave Obama only 34.4 percent of the vote. And the Senate? Members of your state legislature, those heroic figures of high intelligence and high integrity, would choose your two delegates to the nation’s upper house.
Now in fairness, it was state legislators who chose Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, and it was the voters who chose John Edwards, Larry Craig and Harrison “Pete” Williams. And also in fairness, the system didn’t exactly work flawlessly in 2000, when chads became pregnant or hanging, instead of being an important but obscure measure of a patient’s risk for stroke — and the Supreme Court chose the president.
But there is a reason that as a newspaper editor I never permit the use of the word “reform” in our news pages. It’s that you can never count on a reform to be better than the way things are today — even though (and here the phrase “campaign finance” comes to mind, at least in the years preceding the McCain-Feingold legislation) you can count on reforms to have unintended consequences.
And now we employ my rule of politics and life, time tested and utterly reliable: All unintended consequences are bad.
Let’s give the tea partiers, some of whom are moving to end the popular election of senators, the credit they deserve. They actually want to amend the Constitution, not merely — as the Electoral College fiddlers want to do — undermine it.
The chances of this notion becoming law are about the same as Brett Favre being nominated to the Supreme Court. But that is not the point. The point is that in the second decade of the 21st century, every idea suddenly is on the table and nothing is too loony to dismiss.
Of course, as the country contemplates fiddling with the Constitution while Rome burns, six states have enacted the National Popular Vote plan to pack the Electoral College (with the measure having passed both houses of the legislature in an additional four states). This accounts for 73 electoral votes, more than a quarter of those required to activate the plan, which would go into effect when enough states adopt the measure to account for the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president.
One of the arguments for the measure is that it would make the votes of all Americans, not just those in states with big electoral-vote totals, more meaningful.
“There is a sense among many reformers that we might get a different kind of political engagement by encouraging people everywhere to be involved,” says Alexander Keyssar, who teaches history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “We’re dealing with turnouts that are still quite low.”
This summer the hottest debate has been in Massachusetts, where Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick last week signed legislation to implement the plan.
Republicans opposed the measure and believe it would disenfranchise Bay State voters — and the Senate minority leader, Richard R. Tisei, uses a novel argument to make his point, citing the 1972 election, when Massachusetts stood alone in voting for Democratic Sen. George S. McGovern for president:
“Wouldn’t it have galled people,” he asked me the other afternoon, “to have Massachusetts cast its vote for Richard Nixon?”
A living document?
All of this is important — it does, after all, get to the nature of our democracy, and to the question of how we select our leaders. But it is also proxy for a separate, perhaps just as consequential, debate that the country has only begun to undertake in the political stratosphere but may soon become part of the political atmosphere.
That question is complicated but not esoteric. It goes like this:
Is the Constitution a document that should be followed literally, without license to shape it to new events and forces, or is it what some people call a “living document,” one that can adjust to changes that the Founders could not have contemplated?
Like efforts to change the way we elect presidents, which have burst forward after election debacles in 1800, 1872 and 2000, this question recurs in American history. It last sprouted to the surface in 1937, when the country debated Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ill-conceived and ill-fated plan to pack the Supreme Court. It is poised to do so again. And that issue, even more than these very significant changes in election process that the country is contemplating, is poised to be the question of the hour, and of our times.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.