Columns » Ernest Dumas

One man, one vote



President Obama has had a full three weeks in office, so isn't it long past time to be talking about the next presidential election, and the next? Better late than never.

The state legislature, or at least a sizable bloc of it, knows that it is important and has begun to do its part to insure that the next presidential election and those afterward will be fully democratic ones. Let us hope that it succeeds, as it nearly did two years ago.

Arkansas needs to join the National Popular Vote Compact, which will fix the Electoral College system and see to it that the will of American voters is carried out in future presidential elections by guaranteeing that the candidate who wins the most votes takes office. The president is the only elected official in the country who can finish second and be declared the winner.

No, it doesn't seem as urgent now as it did to many people a few weeks ago because the 2008 election turned out all right — that is, the guy who got the popular-vote landslide also won the Electoral College handily. The country dodged a repeat of the 2000 disaster, when the candidate who prevailed by 600,000 votes lost to the No. 2 man, George W. Bush, owing to an Electoral College quirk and a partisan majority on the U. S. Supreme Court.

The same thing almost happened in 2004. Bush won the popular election by a decisive 3.5 million votes but a shift of only 60,000 votes or a fully democratic election in Ohio would have made Sen. John Kerry the president.  He would have carried the same stigma that Bush bore for four years, and for Kerry it would have been a more hamstringing liability because he would have faced an overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

Four times since 1804, when Amendment 12 to the Constitution established the current electoral system, the major-party candidate who got the least popular vote became president, in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. The elections produced three of the most disastrous administrations in history and one ineffectual one.

The Electoral College gives states with small populations a bigger voice in presidential elections. A voter in Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware or Alaska counts three or four times that of a voter in California, Texas or New York.

Electing the president is one area — slavery another — where the Founders screwed up from the start, and they knew it. After the system created a mess in the 1796 and 1800 elections, Congress drafted Amendment 12 and the states ratified it in 1804. Every time there is a glitch, like the losing candidate winning, people set out to reform the Electoral College, but amending the Constitution is hard and one party or the other decides it might be the loser.

After the close 1968 election, both parties backed scrapping the system and going to a popular vote. President Nixon supported it. The House of Representatives adopted the amendment overwhelmingly but Arkansas's John L. McClellan, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Jim Eastland of Mississippi and a few others, figuring that it would diminish the South's outsized influence of presidential elections, filibustered it to death. The South, except for Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, now is largely ignored in presidential elections, which is one reason for going to direct election.

The National Popular Vote Compact commits the states that adopt it to casting their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote once states totaling 270 electoral votes, a majority, have adopted it. The Arkansas House approved the bill in 2007 but it died on the Senate calendar at adjournment. Governor Beebe supported it. Three Democrats and a Republican have introduced it in the House and the State Agencies Committee recommended its passage.

Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey, which collectively have 50 electoral votes, have adopted it.

The principles of majority rule and voter equality are not the only reasons to join the compact. Under the Electoral College system, presidential campaigns are conducted altogether in a handful of states where the polls show that the parties are about even and the electoral votes are in play. That has shrunk to a tier of industrial states from Pennsylvania to Missouri, excluding Illinois, the aforementioned three Eastern seaboard states, New Hampshire, Colorado and New Mexico. The candidates spend no time and virtually no money in the 38 or so states and craft their stands on the issues to reach pivotal blocs of voters in the swing states.

Arkansas has only briefly been a part of the picture. Once reliably Democratic, it now is considered safely Republican in presidential races. Both candidates spent weeks in Ohio but not a day in Arkansas after the primaries. No candidate can afford to pay attention to Arkansas's needs and wishes when there is a precinct in Chillicothe that is shaky.

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