Stop plan to diminish Marylanders' voting power

April 05, 2007|By Alan Natapoff

The General Assembly has passed legislation that would bypass the Electoral College and elect the president by national (raw) popular vote. It is unconstitutional and bad for every voter in Maryland and in the United States. Gov. Martin O'Malley should not sign it.

The bill is unconstitutional because the Constitution says "that no state ... shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent." This plan commits Maryland to a national compact that would go into effect after states with electoral votes representing a national majority - conceivably as few as 13 of the largest states - sign on to it. This would eliminate senatorial electoral votes and therefore harm every small and medium-size state, without its consent.

It would destroy the voting power of every individual voter because small numbers of votes will never turn a national raw-vote election in our lifetime, yet a mere 537 votes in Florida turned the election of 2000. When close states vote on a winner-take-all basis, their individual voters have large national leverage. Without that leverage, we would all be equally impotent - an irony that would give equality a bad name.

The bill would also undermine the two-party system that preserves a credible alternative and a potent protection for every individual voter. It is generally agreed that the present voting system sustains the two major parties, which might otherwise split into factions if they no longer needed to stay unified to compete successfully nationwide.

Baseball has solved a similar problem of maintaining competition, and a bright 9-year-old could explain it. In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees scored twice as many runs (55-27) as the Pirates but lost on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer in the ninth inning of Game 7. That small bit of play was able to turn a whole season of thousands of games because each game is scored on a winner-take-all basis.

Correspondingly, if we want individuals and small groups to have the democratic power to turn the presidency fairly, we must score presidential elections by winner-take-all states they can affect - not in a single giant national district too large for them to turn.

We should, however, make one significant change: Instead of a 538-vote Electoral College based on representation in Congress, "electoral" votes should correspond to actual votes cast. The winner of a state should receive these electoral votes based on the total number of votes cast for all candidates. In this scenario, if 1 million people vote in Maryland, and Candidate X is the winner with 600,000 votes, he would get the full million as his electoral votes. This system would empower voters in poorly contested states, who could withhold their vote from the state's winner by casting a blank ballot. The dominant candidate would need to reach out to voters who are politically opposed to him - or risk losing 40 percent of the electoral votes.

We should count states vote for vote but preserve the equivalent of two senatorial electoral votes for each state. That equivalent is now about 500,000 votes. This would protect the fair power of voters in small and medium-size states, including Maryland. Otherwise, large states would have greater power per vote - an unfairly greater chance per vote of turning the outcome. (If a state - California, let's say - is 50 times as large as another - for example, Wyoming - it would have seven times as much power per vote in a close election if not for senatorial electoral votes.)

Unfortunately, the present system gives electoral votes to a state without regard to the number of votes cast. That is a legacy of the 18th century, when some states wished to count slaves toward their electoral vote totals but did not allow them to vote. That is the only basic flaw that remains, and the only feature we should change.

We should not scrap our successful system and install a deeply flawed system that has never succeeded for long in any major democratic republic. By not signing this bill, Maryland's governor can defend Maryland's fair national impact and the power of every individual American's vote at the same time.

Alan Natapoff, a research scientist at MIT, has studied the mathematics of voting power for four decades and has testified before Congress concerning the Electoral College. His e-mail is natapoff@mit.edu.

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