IT IS ELECTION NIGHT, 2012. The polls have closed. State by state, the votes are being counted, and gradually it becomes clear, to the bottomless horror of some voters and the unbridled delight of others, that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican presidential nominee, has bested President Barack Obama in the popular vote nationwide.
In Massachusetts, where Obama crushed Palin by a landslide of 79 percent -- the most lopsidedly anti-Palin vote of any state -- "bottomless horror" doesn't begin to describe the political reaction. For in 2010, Massachusetts joined the National Popular Vote compact, making a commitment to cast all of its electoral votes for the presidential candidate receiving the most votes nationally, regardless of the results in Massachusetts. The compact took effect in December 2011, when California became the 15th state to join, thereby combining enough states to control a majority of the Electoral College. Now Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, must award its presidential electors to a candidate Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly opposed.
Well, that's one scenario. Maybe it won't be Sarah Palin, maybe it won't be 2012, but sooner or later a Republican is going to win the largest number of votes in a presidential election, and that Republican probably isn't going to carry Massachusetts. What will Bay State liberals and Democrats say when the National Popular Vote compact that so many of them endorsed requires Massachusetts electors to line up behind the Republican? Imagine if Massachusetts had been compelled to give its electoral votes in 1972 not to George McGovern, but to Richard Nixon. Or to the first George Bush in 1988, instead of Michael Dukakis. Or to Bush the Younger -- not John Kerry -- in 2004.
As the National Popular Vote bill was making its way through the state Legislature last month, the chairman of the Election Laws Committee, Senator Thomas Kennedy, warned opponents against trying to block it. "We're committed to this," he said. "It's the will of the people." The will of which people? Not the people of Massachusetts: The whole point of this scheme is to frustrate their will. From now on, anytime Massachusetts voters march to the beat of a different political drummer than most of their countrymen, the National Popular Vote compact will make sure their votes don't count.
Massachusetts is the sixth state to approve this end run around the Constitution, following Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington. It is no coincidence that all six are Democratic strongholds. This movement is fueled by lingering Democratic resentment of George W. Bush, and of the Electoral College system that made him president in 2000, even though Al Gore drew more popular votes. It is a comical irony that if the compact ever goes into effect, its only practical impact in these states will be to occasionally award their presidential electors to the Republican nominees their voters reject.
In 1972, Massachusetts was the only state to vote against the re-election of Richard Nixon. Should its electoral votes have gone to him anyway?
Democrats talk about 2000 as though it represented some colossal subversion of democracy. "Something happened in the 2000 presidential election that should never be permitted to happen again," writes Michael Dukakis in the Salem News. "The candidate who failed to win the popular vote became president of the United States."
But the national popular vote total has no constitutional significance and never has. American presidents are not elected in a single national plebiscite. They are elected by the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia), each of which holds a democratic election to determine its vote in the Electoral College. In political scientist Matthew Franck's terminology, US presidential elections are federally democratic, not nationally democratic.
In the selection of presidents as in so many other areas -- from the equal representation of the states in the Senate to the supermajorities required to override vetoes -- the Framers of the Constitution rejected blind majority rule. For more than two centuries, the formula they devised has resulted in stable and peaceful governance. That is no small achievement in a nation as vast, diverse, and complicated as this one.
Can the Electoral College be improved on? Not with the National Popular Vote scheme, it can't. Most Americans will never accept a system that operates through the nullification of their vote. Today Massachusetts politicians may like the idea of awarding their state's electors to the most popular presidential candidate. Watch how fast they change their minds the first time that candidate is a Republican.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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