It’s possible we could again see the rare occurrence of a candidate winning the popular vote, but losing the White House.
That would likely give more momentum to a plan that would change the way we pick the country’s leader.
Peter Gray reports:
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You don’t need to look back too far to see people questioning the way we elect presidents:
WILLIAMS: “The 2000 election was a transformative moment for presidential elections for this generation…”
Norman Williams is a professor of law and the Director of the Center for Constitutional Government at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
WILLIAMS: “…It was the first presidential election since 1888 in which the White House went to the candidate who had received fewer popular votes nationwide.”
Williams says when Al Gore lost the presidency 12 years ago despite winning the popular vote, those unhappy with the outcome, frustrated by decades of failed attempts to abolish the Electoral College, found what he calls a dangerous “end run” around the Constitution. In an article published in the Georgetown Law Journal, Williams argues strongly against what is known as the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact”, but admits that if the federal government could change the process:
WILLIAMS: “…we would not create the system we have. But we aren’t creating it from scratch, and so the relevant question for Americans today is not what is the best system. It’s rather whether the Electoral College system we have is good enough…”
It’s not good enough for former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, who is among a small but growing number of Republicans who’ve joined Democrats in saying the popular vote should trump the antiquated electoral system put in place by the Founding Fathers:
EDGAR: “My argument is times have changed. We’re not the country we were in 1800, we’re in 2012 and I think things have changed and we need to make sure that our electoral process reflects that and [I] think also [that we need to] give whoever is the President the credibility that’s needed to govern this nation.”
Edgar says today presidential hopefuls spend an inordinate amount of time in just a few swing states. He says other parts of the country are not only widely ignored during the election – they’re also ignored when the winner takes office because candidates did not get a full view of the entire nation.
EDGAR: “I know from my own experience that after the election, when you’re governing, what made an impression on you in the campaign sticks with you and it has an impact on how you govern. I think the current system causes Presidents to miss a lot of things.”
Edgar backs the effort to change things, but getting rid of the Electoral College in the Constitution would be difficult. So here’s how this plan would work: States would basically guarantee they will cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. Once enough states sign on with their electoral votes – and that number is sufficient to elect the president – the plan would go into effect. Jim Edgar and other supporters believe it will ensure a more equitable voting process.
RUTHERFORD: “..this is a case where Governor Edgar and I have a respectful difference of opinion.”
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford was in the State Senate in 2007 when he voted (along with most of his Republican colleagues) against changing Illinois’ relationship to the Electoral College. The General Assembly did pass the measure, making Illinois one of 9 states to have approved it. Rutherford, now the Chair of Governor Romney’s Illinois campaign, says even with the prospect of a Romney popular vote win – but electoral loss – this election won’t change his mind.
RUTHERFORD: “I don’t look at what the Constitution or the process should be because of a particular personality or candidate in the given moment in time. I looked at it during the time I was in the Illinois Senate, I look at it today and I’ll look at it again tomorrow that it is better to have candidates campaign in all parts of the country to get the right to get the Electoral College to be the President, as opposed to just going into highly densely populated areas.”
Republican supporters of the Compact like former Governor Jim Edgar may dread the possibility of a Romney loss due to a split of the popular and electoral vote, but Edgar says such a loss would bring more critics, including members of his own party to his side on the isssue.
RUTHERFORD: “I think it will stir up a lot more discussion and interest and, I think, support. Especially if Governor Romney is in that position where he loses the Presidency but wins the popular vote, I think there’ll be more support out there and some of these states where the Republicans have been the ones holding it up will reconsider.”
Meanwhile Professor Williams in Oregon, a registered Democrat, hopes Obama will clinch the win through electoral votes, so members of his party still bitter after Gore’s loss in 2000 will perhaps see more value in our current way of electing presidents and less in efforts to reform it.
WILLIAMS: “If the 2012 election plays out in the way that I suspect, a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats are all of a sudden going to confront a very different world, and may think very different things about the National Popular Vote Compact after the election.”
As of now, only about half the states needed to adopt the change have agreed to it.
I’m Peter Gray.