This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
While most people were focused on what lawmakers were doing about Washington state’s $9 billion deficit, a potentially momentous election measure quietly made its way through the 2009 Legislature.
Senate Bill 5599, which was signed into law Tuesday, is designed to elect presidents by straight popular vote, thus turning the Electoral College into a quaint constitutional fossil.
This would effectively amend the U.S. Constitution, in concert with other state legislatures. That’s an ambitious agenda for a measure that wouldn’t amend even the state constitution. The idea hasn’t gotten nearly enough public debate, so it’s good to see opponents launching a referendum that would force a real discussion of its merits.
SB 5599 is part of a multi-state effort called National Popular Vote. The strategy is ingenious.
Legislatures would be persuaded, one by one, to join a compact under which their states’ electoral votes would automatically be awarded to the presidential candidate who won a majority of votes nationwide.
When enough states have joined to command 270 electoral votes – the number needed to secure the White House – the compact would take effect. This would guarantee that the Electoral College couldn’t produce a winner who hadn’t also won the popular vote, as happened in 2000.
The arguments for and against this bill are pretty much the arguments for and against the Electoral College itself.
Opponents of the elector system – mostly Democrats, especially since it sent George Bush to the White House in 2000 – say that democracy invariably demands majority rule.
They indict the Electoral College on other charges, as well. One argument is that it reduces the value of votes in overwhelmingly Republican and Democratic states, letting "battleground" states dictate the winner. Also, it gives the citizens of smaller states more voting power (at least on paper) than their counterparts in the most populous states.
But supporters score points of their own. Holding 50 distinct presidential elections guarantees that rural interests will get at least some attention from the candidates. Election by straight majority threatens to let the big cities dominate presidential politics. The traditional system also quarantines election fraud to individual states; votes may be stolen in Illinois, but that won’t affect the results in Montana.
One criticism of SB 5599 could prove hard to counter: Once the compact took effect, Washington’s votes would be allocated according to results in other states. In 2004, for example, most Washingtonians voted for John Kerry – but the new system would have counted them in George Bush’s camp.
This measure involves huge issues of national consequence, and the electorate ought to be in on the discussion. The referendum campaign – which could repeal SB 5599 – promises to give the arguments the public hearing they deserve.