John Colson: Some good news on the national electoral front
Hit & Run
Some good news about elections, at last, has come our way.
Colorado’s Legislature last week passed a bill aligning our state with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which hopes to defang the much-maligned U.S. Electoral College (we’ll call it the EC for brevity’s sake), which comprises 538 “electors” chosen by voters in the various states and loosely charged with following their states’ election outcomes in picking a new president every four years (it doesn’t always happen that cleanly, of course.)
In case you didn’t quite get that, what it means is that the voters do not directly elect our president. The “electors” in the EC have that responsibility, and twice in recent memory it has resulted in the election of presidents who did not get the most votes nationwide (we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Backers of the National Popular Vote movement believe (as I do) that the EC is an outmoded way of electing the president, and that presidents should be chosen strictly by the popular vote, just as governors and legislators (both state and federal) are chosen.
The Electoral College was established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, supposedly as a way of guaranteeing that the political influence of smaller states is not overwhelmed by the larger states.
But it also was viewed as a compromise between two factions — one side urged a true national-vote selection of the president, and another wanted the president to be elected by congressional representatives, who in turn are directly elected by the voters.
Other reasons came up during the debate at the Constitutional Convention attended by the founding fathers of our country, including concerns that the nation at the time was already too vast to allow for accurate electoral results and the communication of those results to the populace. And this was when there were only 13 states, and most of what ultimately became the USA was still a wilderness occupied primarily by Native Americans.
There also were fears of a “mobocracy” in which the unwashed masses might give the presidency to a tinpot dictator, or a flim-flam artist, or (god forbid) a “populist” charlatan whose ego and greed were the core reasons for seeking the presidency (sound familiar?).
And then there was the racist element — bigots from all parts of the country have consistently tried to limit the voting capabilities of people of color (and women, for a long time), clearly hoping to keep control in the hands of white men.
In any event, the founders came up with the EC as a way to ensure that all of the states had a relatively equal say in the quadrennial presidential contest, and also make it a function that could be handled more efficiently than an actual nationwide competition.
But a lot has changed since those early days. The right to vote is no longer restricted to white, property-owning men, as it was initially. And we now have the technology-driven speed with which election results go out to the nation at large, and other developments that have rendered the “small states” justification for the EC somewhat moot.
And, as I noted earlier, we have had two elections — in 2000 and 2016 — when the candidate who won the popular vote ended up losing the election. That’s what gave us the George W. Bush and Donald Trump years, which galled many voters and gave rise to complaints about the EC and the fairness of our elections overall.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a way of addressing this unacceptable situation, and so far it has been adopted by 12 states (including the District of Columbia) controlling 172 EC votes, and has passed one legislative chamber in several more states that control 89 EC votes, according to the website, nationalpopularvote.com.
Once the compact is approved by enough states, meaning once the compact’s EC-vote count reaches 270, or just over half the EC total needed to win an election the compact can become law and the EC will, for the first time, reflect the national vote in picking a president.
I must note that the Republicans in the Colorado Statehouse have been fighting tooth and nail to keep this bill from passing in our state, and are now lobbying Gov. Jared Polis to use his veto to kill the idea, but it appears Polis will sign the bill, perhaps this week, and make it law.
Another positive development on the election front came up over the past week, in the form of an analysis piece in the New York Times by writer Amy Chozick, who suggested that peer pressure might be one way to ensure that more people vote.
According to the piece, about a dozen years ago, in advance of a special election in Michigan, activists sent out fliers to voters that revealed the voting histories of their neighbors — information gleaned from public-record documents — and that asked the recipients, “What if your neighbors knew whether you voted?”
Subsequent surveys indicated that recipients of the mailer responded by overcoming their internal intertia and casting a ballot, which was seen as a boon to Democrats, who traditionally benefit from higher voter turnouts.
The surveys also revealed that some recipients also got mad about the whole thing, even as they went ahead and voted, probably in reaction to perceived violations of their personal privacy and space. This convinced political groups to back away from using this particular stratagem.
But now, maintained Chozick, we are all more accustomed (even eager) to allowing our privacy to be violated, including the use of software (known as “turnout apps”) that permits voters to contact other voters and urge them to exercise their right to vote.
Activists in the Trump era are seizing on this technological persuasion as a way of boosting turnout in hotly contested elections, and the technology is believed to have been effective in the 2018 mid-term elections that brought Democrats to power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
I urge readers to check out Chozick’s piece. To my way of thinking, it might be a powerful tool for overcoming voter apathy in our times, which could only be a good thing.
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