Skip to main content

Politics as Usual: Switch to the popular vote? Not so fast, folks (OPINION)

May 1, 2012

Every presidential year, it seems, a debate starts up about the curious constitutional custom of the Electoral College.
Because the Founding Fathers were scared silly about putting real power in the hands of the great unwashed (which, to be fair, was significantly illiterate, ill-informed and unfamiliar with the whole concept of self-government in the late 1700s), they concluded that the states would elect presidents rather than having a popular vote of the citizens.
They were also, having had quite enough experience with kings, scared silly at the idea of a strong executive power in the hands of one man (they expected it would always be a man and, 224 years later, they are still correct). They viewed the president as “chief magistrate”, carrying out the will of Congress, not the powerful head of government we recognize today.
Well, things change.
We now think of our country as “one nation, indivisible,” rather than the collection of states the Founders were lashing together under a single constitution. And the populace is, compared with then, far better educated and more well-informed than in the late 18th century. (Whether we are wiser is a debate best left to another time.)
So the populace has changed, the country has changed and the nature of the presidency has changed. Given that, should the way we elect a president change? Maybe.
Since politics is never far removed from self interest, it should be noted that the Electoral College is designed to protect the interests of smaller states (like Rhode Island) from being overwhelmed by the larger states.
Even then, four of the first five presidents were from Virginia, which was the big Kahuna of states at the time and the fifth, John Adams, was from Massachusetts, Kahuna North.
But even if the Electoral College gives Rhode Island a tiny bit of an edge it wouldn’t otherwise have, electing a president by popular vote is probably the Right Thing To Do. Most of us know in the backs of our minds somewhere that there is an Electoral College that has something to do with the election, but in practice we behave as though a presidential election is a contest where the candidate who gets the most votes wins, even if Al Gore would remind us that it isn’t so.
What is most certainly NOT the right thing to do is the method that a cabal known as National Popular Vote (NPV) is trying to foist on the nation – Rhode Island’s House of Representatives is slated to vote on it May 1 – called the “interstate compact.”
The NPV people are trying to enlist states into an agreement to allocate all of their electoral votes to whichever candidate gets the most popular votes nationwide, regardless of how the citizens in that state voted.
So if this bogus “compact” had been in effect in 2004, when 259,760 Rhode Islanders voted for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and only 169,046 of us voted for President George W. Bush, all four of Rhode Island’s electoral votes would have gone to re-elect President Bush. In other words, “fie on all you silly people who cast votes, we are going to render them meaningless, and the votes cast on your behalf are going to go to the other guy.”
You can’t hold an election and then give the votes cast the exact opposite effect than that which the voters intended. That’s perverse.
NPV likes to point out that the U.S. Constitution allows states to choose presidential electors any way they see fit, so what they propose isn’t exactly a constitutional violation. Yes, but the notion that any state would, at this point in time, choose by any way other than by a vote beggars common sense and more than 200 years of history. Simply put, they are trying to circumvent the constitution, to undermine it, when what they should be doing is trying to amend it.
Article V of the constitution explains in detail how the constitution should be amended if there is a desire to do so. Passing a constitutional amendment is a very difficult process and it was meant to be so. I don’t want to imagine what kind of country we would be living in now if it were easy to make changes to the founding document.
If the General Assembly were to ratify a constitutional amendment calling for a popular vote for President of the United States, that would be one thing. But if they validate this cockamamie scheme, they would be betraying you and invalidating your vote. The legislation passed both chambers a few years ago but Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri vetoed it.
Proponents claim that Independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, while not specifically supporting the legislation, has spoken favorably of a national popular vote in the past.

n Folks who saw this column last week will recall that it put forth the proposition that, despite Rep. David Cicilline’s current troubles, he shouldn’t be counted out of his re-election bid just yet, that it is conceivable he could make a comeback.
I was playing some of my Neil Young bootlegs in the past week, and I ran across a verse from a song that could be the theme of that campaign: I’m sorry for the things I’ve done, I’ve shamed myself with lies. But soon these things are overcome, and can’t be recognized.
The name of the song? “Running Dry”
Nothing’s perfect, I guess.
Call me a contrarian, but I was never one who demanded that politicians cough up their income tax returns or cast aspersions on those who refused to release them.
If elected officials and candidates choose to offer up their tax returns for inspection, I will gleefully comb through them and report any interesting details, but if they say no, I figure that is their right.
I have always been horrified at the notion: “If you don’t have anything to hide, what do you need privacy for?”
As WPRI’s Ted Nesi noted in his Nesi’s Notes blog last week, in Rhode Island, top pols such as Sen. Jack Reed, Rep. David Cicilline, Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis are offering up their returns, as are Senate candidate Barry Hinckley and congressional candidate Brendan Doherty.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee is among those saying no to making their 1040s pubic, as are Rep. Jim Langevin, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s office says he’s not sure if he will release his.
Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma says he won’t release his unless and until he is elected. That seems a bit backward. The whole idea of releasing the returns is to allow voters to know information about the personal finances of the people they are electing. Once someone is in office, it’s too late. Gemma seems to want it both ways, suggesting that he is open to releasing them but not doing it until he is safely in office.
Those in state office correctly point out that the RI Ethics Commission has an excellent and informative financial disclosure form that provides pertinent information voters can use in choosing a candidate to vote for or against. The federal financial disclosure system, which only provides disclosures within very broad ranges, leaves a lot to be desired and should be tightened up considerably.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
View more articles in:


Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes