EDITORIAL: A Well-Intentioned But Bad Proposal
If we want to change the way the United States elects its presidents, fine. But do it through the front door, not the back.
The leaders of a movement for a national popular vote tried and failed last year to get North Carolina to jump on their bandwagon. Now they've returned to lobby the General Assembly for a second time. They're well-intentioned, but they deserve to be rebuffed again.
Our Founding Fathers came up with a lot of good ideas when they put together the operating instructions for our Republic. The clunky Electoral College system is not one of their brighter ones. Distrusting a pure democracy, the writers of our Constitution shrank from direct popular election of the president and substituted an unwieldy, Rube Goldberg procedure under which citizens of each state elect electors (equal to the total number of that state's congressional delegation).
The electors then get together and elect the president, usually -- but not necessarily always -- following the wishes of the folks back home. It's a machine guaranteed to malfunction on occasion, and it has. In 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 (Bush/Gore), the guy who got the most votes didn't become president.
Those behind the current movement are still smarting from the fiasco of eight years ago, and understandably so. They want to prevent such a miscarriage of electoral justice from happening again in future years, and we're open to the idea of consigning the Electoral College and its potential for mischief assigned to the ashcan of history -- even if North Carolina's greatest constitutional champion, the late Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., was violently opposed to any such tampering.
But there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve such a radical reform. The right way is a constitutional amendment. That isn't given much chance of success. So the leaders of the movement, which originated in Maryland, have succumbed to the temptation of expediency and decided to take the wrong way instead.
They've come up with a devilishly clever strategy. Rather than abolish the College, they would simply bypass it. Under their plan, each participating state would agree to commit its electoral votes to whichever candidate got the greatest number of popular votes nationally, no matter how the vote went in that state.
There is a kind of simple elegance to the proposal, which would indirectly and unofficially blunt the College's function without confronting it head-on. Three other states -- Hawaii, New Jersey and Illinois -- have joined Maryland in agreeing to be part of that interstate compact. All of them, like North Carolina, have Democratic legislative majorities and Democratic governors.
That fact points up one of the main strikes against the proposal, which is that it has a distinct partisan flair. Revising our presidential election process is way too much of a fundamental change -- and flies too much in the face of basic American ideals of federalism and states' rights -- to be pulled off as a kind of procedural coup by one party. It needs to be a consensus decision.
The plan could also create further mischief of unexpected kinds. For instance, it might prompt candidates to spend all their time campaigning in the nation's population centers, ignoring the rest.
Bad idea. North Carolina should turn thumbs down on it.
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