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Suddenly our General Assembly is smarter than James Madison?

April 22, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

In a session remarkable for its unremarkability, the General Assembly and the governor made history of sorts when Maryland became the first state to approve a measure that would effectively scrap the electoral college.

This is not new ground we should be proud of breaking.

Especially in this political climate, a surliness with the electoral college is an easy sell. How different might history and our present circumstances have been had the winner of the popular vote in 2000 - Al Gore - ascended to the Oval Office?

And to most modern voters, the electoral college has as much relevance as Whigs, Mugwumps and stovepipe hats.

Maryland's law, which would only become effective should the idea gain critical mass among a number of other states, would award its electoral votes to the candidate who receives the greatest number of popular votes nationwide.

Under this scenario, even if most Marylanders had voted for George Bush in 2000, the state would have sent its electoral votes to Gore. Obviously, if enough states join in the fun, the electoral college will be neatly circumvented.

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And so will the Constitution.

States have as many electoral votes as they have seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. Seats in the House are based on population, and the least populous states have only one member. But since each state has two senators, that means even the most sparsely populated state has three electoral votes.

The electoral votes are cast by electors who meet in their respective state capitols. These electors, real people, almost always cast their votes for the candidate who won the majority of the state's popular votes.

Almost. Instantly, the year 1836 comes to mind, when 23 Virginia electors conceived a spite against Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Richard Johnson, who shared the ticket with Martin Van Buren and a bed with Julia Chinn, a family slave.

(He treated her proudly as his wife and they had two children. But it was too much for the Virginians, and ultimately the Democrats. Four years later, in a harbinger of things to come perhaps, the conflicted party didn't nominate anyone for vice president.)

So needless to say, the electoral college is not without its peculiarities. But another of our ancient ancestors who went by the name of James Madison pointed out that our new system of government would be a necessary and healthy compromise between the will of the majority of the people and the will of the majority of the states.

It's true that a presidential voter in Wyoming essentially has more clout than a voter in California because the number of voters per electoral vote is significantly smaller.

It's also true that states that are solidly aligned with one party or another are less likely to receive attention from candidates. Since the electoral votes in most states are winner-take-all, what good does it do for a candidate of either party to campaign in, say, California, where it's basically preordained that all its votes will go to the Democrats?

If we lived in the United State of California, this might be a sound consideration.

But we are a blend, a Republic, that represents both people and territory. What might become of Alaska if politicians only considered its puny number of voters and not its monumental number of square miles?

Those who take offense at the electoral college charge that candidates unfairly focus all their energy on "battleground states" that are up for grabs.

But why is this bad? In an information age, we can certainly learn all we want about a candidate, whether that candidate bags a photo-op with our local Boy Scout troop or not.

And battleground-state appearances offer perhaps the best indication of a candidate's true colors. Since the battleground state by definition has an equal number of voters on the left and right and probably a good number in the middle, there is little incentive to shamelessly pander to one side or the other.

It's also important to remember that Madison and his home boys were not necessarily fans of direct democracy. They realized how unruly things would become if, for example, every federal law had to be passed by a full, public vote instead of by representatives that the people choose to do their bidding.

And the popular-vote initiative has one other obvious problem as well.

Because if you argue for the abolition of the electoral college, that means you must logically argue for the abolition of the U.S. Senate itself.

Based on popular-vote logic, the U.S. Senate must be the most undemocratic form of governance this side of Pol Pot. Every state has two of senators, regardless of population. Montana has just as many senators as New York. That can't be fair.

Following Maryland's passage of the law, The New York Times praised the move, calling the electoral collage a creaky old fossil. So does that make the U.S. Senate a creaky old fossil as well? (Don't answer that.) The only alternative is to consider that maybe, just maybe, the Founders knew what they were doing after all.

I don't see any bad intentions behind the popular vote initiative - just a bad reading of history.

Through the Constitution, our nation was established, on purpose, as a well-balanced confluence of popular, state and federal power. Until someone can step forward with proof that he is the superior of Madison, Hamilton and Jay, it's best not perform cosmetic surgery on the guts of their marvelous creation.

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