A ballot is shredded as a voter puts it in a voting box.

A ballot is shredded as a voter puts it in a voting box.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Maine Took the US One Giant Step Toward More Democratic Elections

On Wednesday, Maine’s legislature passed a bill joining a compact to commit all of their electoral votes, regardless of who won in their individual state, to whichever candidate won the national popular vote.

What if the person the majority of Americans voted for became president? It usually happens, but no Republican has been initially elected to the White House by a majority of Americans since 1988.

Just imagine how different America (and the world) would be today if neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump had ever set foot in the White House because both lost the federal election, the national popular vote.

This week, the State of Maine took America one giant step closer to ending the antidemocratic grip the GOP’s had on our presidential elections. Even though George W. Bush lost the 2000 election by a half-million votes nationally and Donald Trump lost in 2016 by 3 million votes, both ended up in the White House because of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was a compromise designed to keep the president above political considerations; it was sold to the public as a way to prevent an agent (witting or unwitting) of a foreign power from becoming president. It has failed on both counts.

The problem with getting rid of the Electoral College is that it’s written into the Constitution: Amending that document takes two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states, and that isn’t happening any day soon.

But, because the Constitution also says that individual states can determine on their own how to assign their electoral votes, there’s a way to get around the Electoral College altogether.

Right now, all but two states give 100% of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who won the most votes in the state (Maine and Nebraska split their states in two but assign all electoral votes to whoever won the most popular votes in each region).

But they don’t have to: A state, under the Constitution, can assign their electoral votes to any candidate they want.

When it looked like Al Gore was going to win Florida in 2000, for example, the speaker of the Florida House prepared legislation authorizing the governor, Jeb Bush, to give the state’s electoral votes—and, thus, the presidency—to his brother George W. Bush, regardless of who the recount determined won the popular vote in that state.

So, some smart political and constitutional minds got together and came up with a system whereby states representing 270 electoral votes (the amount to become president) pledge to commit all of their electoral votes, regardless of who won in their individual state, to whichever candidate won the national popular vote.

To accomplish this, they organized what they call the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), and states have been signing up for several decades. With Maine, they’re at 209 Electoral College votes, and Michigan (with 16 Electoral College votes) will be the next state to join, as the National Popular Vote legislation is working its way through their legislature now.

By about two-to-one, 65% of Americans favor this change so the person who wins the country also wins the White House. As you can imagine, Republicans hate the idea and are threatening litigation under an ancient and anachronistic law if it passes.

By this system, we would have had President Al Gore and President Hillary Clinton, the Supreme Court would today have a pronounced progressive tilt, a half-million Americans would not have died of Covid-19, and the country wouldn’t have lost two decades in the fight against global warming.

All because that’s what the majority of Americans actually voted for. Democracy, after all!

On Wednesday, Maine’s legislature passed (with votes of both Democrats and Republicans) a bill joining the compact, bringing the total number of electoral votes now held by compact states to 209. With Michigan, we’ll be at 225.

Most Americans are rightly confused by the entire process, and only a small percentage could even accurately describe what the Electoral College is or why it’s in the Constitution.

The history is fascinating.

America’s founders and framers thought they could use the Electoral College to prevent somebody like Donald Trump from ever becoming president. Seriously.

Unfortunately, they were wrong, and now we’re paying the price.

It’s often said that the Electoral College was brought into being to perpetuate or protect the institution of slavery, and, indeed, during the first half-century of America, it gave the slave states several presidents who wouldn’t have been otherwise elected.

This is because there’s one elector in the college for every member of the House and Senate (and three for the District of Columbia). When the three-fifths compromise was in effect (until just after the Civil War), slave states had more members in the House of Representatives than the size of their voting public “deserved.”

(It’s now true of Red States and the Senate, where Republicans represent only 145 million Americans and Democrats represent 186 million Americans, but Republicans hold fully 50% of the vote.)

This explains, in part, why when James Madison proposed the Electoral College, the framers seized on it as a compromise and solution after weeks of drawn-out and often angry debate on how to select a president.

Most amazing, according to the framers of the Constitution themselves, the real reason for the Electoral College was to prevent a foreign power (like Russia) from placing their stooge in the White House.

Today we’re horrified by the idea that Donald Trump may actually be putting first the interests of Russia and China, and that money and other efforts from multiple foreign entities may have helped him get elected.

It’s shocking, something we never even really took seriously when, for example, the movie Manchurian Candidate came out back in the day. What a cute idea for a movie, we thought; that could never happen here.

But this was actually a big deal for the founding generation. One of the first questions about any candidate for president during that era was, “Is he beholden in any way to any other government?”

At the time of the Declaration of Independence, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of all citizens of the American colonies favored remaining a British colony (Jimmy Carter’s novel The Hornet’s Nest is a great resource); there were spies and British loyalists everywhere, and Spain had staked out their claim to the region around Florida while the French were colonizing what is now Canada and Louisiana. Foreign powers had us boxed in.

In 1775, the year the Revolutionary War unofficially started, virtually all of the colonists had familial, friendship, or business acquaintances with people whose loyalty was suspect or who were openly opposed to American independence.

It was even rumored that Ben Franklin was working as a spy for British intelligence (and, it turns out, evidence shows he was, only against France when he lived in Paris). Conservative Federalists, in particular, were wary of Franklin’s “internationalist” sentiments.

Thomas Jefferson was living in France when the Constitution was being written, and his political enemies were, even then (it got much louder around the election of 1800), whispering that he had, at best, mixed loyalties. In response, he felt the need to protest to Elbridge Gerry that, “The first object of my heart is my own country. In that is embarked my family, my fortune, and my own existence.”

When John Adams famously defended British soldiers who, during an anti-British riot on March 5, 1770, shot and killed Crispus Attucks and four others, he was widely condemned for being too pro-British, an issue that recurred in 1798 when, as president, Adams pushed the Alien and Sedition laws through Congress over Vice President Thomas Jefferson’s loud objections. British Spy Gilbert Barkley wrote to his spymasters in London that Quakers and many other Americans considered Adams an enemy to his country.

And after the Revolutionary War, the nation was abuzz about one of that war’s most decorated soldiers, Benedict Arnold, once considered a shoo-in for high elected office, selling out to the British in exchange for money and a title.

So, it fell to a fatherless man born in Nevins to explain to Americans that the main purpose of the Electoral College was to make sure that no agent of a foreign government would ever become president.

Back then, America was so spread out it would be difficult for most citizens and voters to get to know a presidential candidate well enough to spot a spy or traitor, Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 68. Therefore, the electors—having no other governmental duty, obligation, or responsibility—would be sure to catch one if it was tried.

“The most deadly adversaries” of America, Hamilton wrote, would probably “make their approaches [to seizing control of the USA] from more than one quarter, chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

Influencing public opinion or owning a senator was nothing compared to having their man in the White House. As Hamilton wrote:

How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy [presidency] of the Union?

But, Hamilton wrote, the framers of the Constitution “have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention.”

The system they set up to protect the White House from being occupied by an agent of a foreign government was straightforward, Hamilton bragged.

The choice of president would not “depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes.”

Instead, the Electoral College would be made up of “persons [selected] for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment.”

The electors would be apolitical because it would be illegal for a senator or House member to become one, Hamilton wrote:

And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the president in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors.

This, Hamilton was certain, would eliminate “any sinister bias.”

Excluding members of Congress who may be subject to bribery or foreign influences, the electors would select a man for president who was brave of heart and pure of soul:

“The process of election [by the electoral college] affords a moral certainty,” Hamilton wrote, “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Indeed, while a knave or rogue or traitor may fool enough people to even ascend to the office of mayor of a major city or governor of a state, Hamilton believed the Electoral College would ferret out such a traitor.

He wrote:

“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence” of the men in the Electoral College who would select him as president “of the whole Union...”

Hamilton’s pride in the system that he himself had helped build was hard for him to suppress. He added in Federalist 68:

It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue.

Unfortunately, as Donald Trump proves, things haven’t worked out that way.

Because the three-fifths compromise gave more electors to the slave states than their voting population would indicate, the Electoral College handed the White House to four Virginia slaveholders among our first five presidents. Since that compromise has been eliminated, the Electoral College has continued to wreak mischief in putting George W. Bush and Donald Trump into office.

Hamilton never envisioned a day when a man so entangled in financial affairs with foreign governments as is Donald Trump could even be seriously considered, because, in his mind, the electors would carefully investigate the candidate. That hasn’t happened in over a century, so, by his standards, the electors totally failed in their job in the 2000 and 2016 elections.

The Electoral College was a compromise designed to keep the president above political considerations; it was sold to the public as a way to prevent an agent (witting or unwitting) of a foreign power from becoming president. It has failed on both counts.

Through the arc of time since her founding, America has constantly—albeit in fits and starts—expanded democracy. From expanding the vote to include racial minorities and women, to amending the Constitution to allow for citizens to vote for U.S. senators rather than having them appointed by often-corrupted state legislatures, average citizens of all races and genders have been brought into the decisions around who will lead us.

But in the past two decades, the Electoral College has brought us two presidents who were rejected by a majority of Americans. This is fundamentally undemocratic.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact can fix this (if the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene in response to a GOP lawsuit). Check out your state on their website: If Democrats can flip a few more Red states Blue this November (and, with abortion on the ballot that’s a real possibility), we might be able to get this done in time for the 2028 election.

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