By Jamie Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University's Washington College of Law and director of its Program on Law and Government. He is also a Democratic State Senator in Maryland where he introduced the first National Popular Vote bill in America to be signed into law. Jamie can be reached at [email protected]
Every major progressive current in our political history has dismantled antidemocratic filters and blockages-like selection of U.S. Senators by state legislatures or property, wealth, sex and race qualifications for voting-in favor of direct and universal enfranchisement. The whole trajectory of American politics moves toward the beautiful, lawyerlike vision of our last great Republican president, who spoke of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
So it goes without saying that Americans have been trying since the beginning to overthrow our undemocratic, arbitrary, incomprehensible, racially tilted and dangerously manipulable electoral college regime in favor of a direct national popular vote for president of the United States.
This impulse-which has long commanded the support of upwards of 60% of the American people-has been thwarted by two false assumptions: (1) that no change is possible without a constitutional amendment and (2) that any change will disadvantage smaller states. But there have been dramatic political breakthroughs made recently by the National Popular Vote (NVP) movement, which seeks not to pass a constitutional amendment but to create an interstate compact in which states-all of them, it is hoped, but certainly enough to equal 270 in the electoral college-will agree to cast their electors for the winner of the national popular vote. With strikingly sophisticated analysis and remarkably little fanfare, 27 state legislative chambers (out of 99)-some in big states (California) and some in small (Vermont) and some in in-between (Washington)-have passed legislation to join the NVP compact, which has been signed into law in five states: Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and, yesterday, Washington.
Why is the NPV plan spreading like political wildfire? The core reason is that it presents an irresistible proposition: that the person we elect president should be the one who collects the most votes. This is how we elect Governors, Mayors, Senators and Congresspeople, and it is how presidents are elected in most democratic nations that have presidents. On the other hand, the current electoral college regime can produce farcical upside-down results like the one we saw in 2000, a dismal turning point in American history, when the popular vote loser (by more than a half-million votes) tortured out a "victory" in the electoral college after the most dubious sequence of assaults on voting rights and political participation by state and federal actors like Katharine Harris and five Supreme Court justices. There have been four such "wrong winner" elections and numerous razor-close calls throughout our history.