THE ISSUE: With Gov. Jerry Brown's signature Monday, California joins seven other states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote compact. If enough states sign on the goal is 270 electoral votes, or enough to elect a president compact members would direct their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in a presidential election.
Has the time come for the states to help fix the Electoral College?
Ben Boychuk: No, its a trap!
Call it Al Gore's revenge. Eleven years after the former vice president eked out a popular vote win but lost the Electoral College vote and therefore the presidency to George W. Bush, popular-vote partisans are one step closer to ensuring a calamity such as the Florida recount never befalls the republic again.
Until, of course, it does.
The rationale behind the National Popular Vote compact is perfectly democratic. The Electoral College favors smaller states and "swing" states, and it's a relic of the Constitution of 1787. The candidate who wins the most votes should take the prize.
It's only fair, right? In fact, the idea behind the Electoral College was to ensure large, urban states don't overshadow the smaller, more rural ones. The National Popular Vote compact wouldn't end the Electoral College only a constitutional amendment could do that but it will cause distortions that the Constitution's framers sought to avoid.
Presidential elections will still be waged state-by-state. Instead of a few battleground states, members of the NPV will be one big battleground, where election lawyers and campaign tricksters will run amok whenever the national popular vote is as close as it was in 2000 with Bush vs. Gore, or in 1960 with Richard Nixon vs. John F. Kennedy.
As Claremont McKenna political scientist Jack Pitney observed recently at City Journal California, any number of scenarios could put the compact in jeopardy with President Barack Obama winning big in California, for example, but narrowly losing the national popular vote to a conservative such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry or tea party favorite Michele Bachmann.
"Would Democrats gladly let the state's electoral votes, and the presidency, go to the hated GOP candidate?" Pitney asks rhetorically. To ask the question is to answer it.
The good news is, Congress must approve all interstate compacts. And even assuming Congress goes along, it's not at all clear the scheme passes muster under the state constitution. You will search in vain for the provision that empowers the Legislature to let nonresidents decide a state election.
No compact is unbreakable, of course. If the National Popular Vote's boosters doubt that California is full of lawyers who know how to weasel out of a contract, Pitney quipped, "they aren't following the Hollywood trade press." Rather than promoting fairer elections, it's much easier to foresee more litigious elections under this compact. If you thought Bush v. Gore was entertaining, then the National Popular Vote should be a blast.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)
Pia Lopez: Yes, current system doesnt work
When asked, "Do you think the president should be elected by direct popular vote?" most Americans and most Californians 70 percent have consistently supported the idea.
Yet we don't elect the president that way as we do every other elective office. Instead, voters pick members of an Electoral College who have been selected by the political parties. Those electors in turn choose the president.
Far from being a reasoned or venerable system created by the Founders, as Ben implies, it was a last-minute addition that has never worked well. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, some delegates wanted direct election of the president; others wanted indirect election by Congress. Near the end, under the "hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience," wrote James Madison, they settled on the Electoral College.
Four times in U.S. history, the loser of the popular vote has won the presidency, most recently in 2000, when a candidate who received 543,895 fewer votes than his opponent became president. That perverse result also occurred in 1824, 1876 and 1888.
States can change this. Under Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, they have the power to decide how their presidential electors are chosen.
They can, through an interstate compact, decide to allocate their electoral votes to the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes nationally.
Ben fears that voters would not accept it if their state's electoral votes went to the national winner who did not win their own state. The reality in American history, however, is that voters are more likely to question the legitimacy of an election if the presidency goes to the candidate who loses the national popular vote.
One of the aims of the compact is to assure that candidates run a nationwide campaign not just in a few "swing" states. California Republican James Brulte explains why this matters: "with a nation as large and diverse as ours, it is critical that presidential candidates be educated about all our states, not just the lucky 16 swing states."
This effort is not about large states vs. small states, as Ben fears. As California Republican Greg Aghazarian points out, both large and small states are ignored under the current system: "Issues which are vital to states like Montana and California are routinely disregarded. Issues which are vital to states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are overemphasized."
Small and large states have signed on to the compact from Vermont with three electoral votes to Illinois with 20. With California on board, this compact can and should happen.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.