‘One person, one vote’ can’t happen in presidential elections

In a presidential election, should a vote in Brunswick, Biddeford or Bangor, Maine, carry less than half the weight of a vote in Cheyenne, Cody or Casper, Wyoming?

That’s what happened in 2016.  And Wyoming wasn’t the only state with more influence for each of its voters than Maine.  By the same token, a Maine voter had more influence than those in some other states.

The rule of “one person, one vote” does not apply to presidential elections.

A popular vote counts each person’s vote the same.  But people don’t vote for president.  They vote for Electors, members of the Electoral College, a mythical institution not found in the Constitution.

The Constitution’s drafters created a separate presidential election in each state.  A state is assigned a number of Electors equal to the total of its U.S. senators and representatives.  The result is not the same as votes distributed proportional to population.

Voting by state was meant as an inducement for states, then powerful political forces, to ratify the Constitution.  Voting by Electors would keep government under the control of a few wise citizens, not average people who could be swayed by political campaigns.

Since 1787, the central, national power of the federal government has grown at the expense of states.

Also, the people, not a few wise men, have come to elect their leaders.  The amended Constitution requires a Senate elected by the people, not by state legislatures.  It now says that voters include members of all races, women and young people.

Despite such efforts to better align congressional representation with the popular will, more reform is needed, as discussed previously in this series.

But nothing at all has been done to improve the expression of popular will in the election of the increasingly powerful president.  In five national elections, the president had fewer popular votes than the loser.  Two of the five most recent elections produced a minority winner.

The presidential election is now a national process to elect a national leader, not separate state elections.  Yet the preservation of the electoral vote serves mainly to override the will of the people.  That is likely to happen more often.

Not only does the country live with this undemocratic situation, but some Electors make it worse by not voting for candidates they were elected to support.  So-called “faithless Electors” amounted to about one percent of all Electors in 2016.  That’s more influence than Maine has.

Maine and Nebraska have tried splitting their electoral vote somewhat proportionately, but electoral math shows this method cannot produce a national result reflecting the popular will.

It is difficult to argue with the rule that each person’s vote should count just as much as any other person’s vote.  To bring the presidential election in line with this now commonly accepted rule, the winner must be elected by the popular vote across the country.  It’s only fair.

Each state may determine how its Electors vote.  States may require their electoral votes to go to the winner of the national election, resulting in each person’s vote counting the same.  If states with a combined 270 electoral votes – the majority required for winning – adopt this rule, it should automatically go into effect.

The National Popular Vote campaign reports that 15 states plus D.C. with 196 electoral votes have adopted this rule.  Only 74 more votes are needed.  While it is unlikely to happen in time for 2020, the change seems inevitable.

Maine came close this year to signing on, but pulled back.  Political opposition, nostalgia for the Electoral College and worries about losing a little voting weight were factors.  Both its electoral vote and popular vote influence are less than one percent.

Unfortunately, this is a partisan matter and not only a question of good government or fair elections.  The current system favors Republicans, the minority victors in past presidential elections.  Its opposition to the popular vote is part of an avowed voter suppression strategy in states voting for Democrats.

The Constitution requires state legislation on the electoral vote procedure.  The Supreme Court has ruled that a referendum vote, possible in Maine and in many other states, is a legislative act.  When legislatures won’t act, citizens may be able to find a path of their own toward popular election of the president.

The electoral vote with its “Electoral College” can be preserved.  Throughout American history, states have repeatedly changed how their Electors are chosen.  The obvious threat of persistent minority rule means, once again, it’s time for a change.

Note: This is the third of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.