In winner-take-all presidential election system, Connecticut loses

The way we elect our President today is deeply flawed. And not just because a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the White House, as has happened four times already in U.S. history.

Thanks to the way our current system operates, presidential campaigns now divide our country into states that matter and states that don’t. In 2008, 98% of all money and resources spent by John McCain and Barack Obama went to just 15 states.

Connecticut was among the 35 states that were essentially ignored – in fact, we were the most ignored state in the union, according to fairvote.com. There were no campaign visits, no ads on the radio or TV, no grassroots organizing, no get-out-the-vote activity -not even a single poll to gauge what issues mattered to us.

The root cause of these problems is the “winner take all” state law for awarding electoral votes to the Electoral College. This means whichever candidate gets the most votes in Connecticut gets all of our electors. But because it doesn’t matter whether one wins a state by one vote or one million, a candidate who is sure to carry Connecticut will always take us for granted, and a candidate who is sure to lose will write us off. Instead, candidates lavish their attention on the small group of so-called “battleground states.”

No citizen should be satisfied with a system that excludes 200 million out of 300 million Americans from the most important election we hold. And we certainly shouldn’t be satisfied with presidential candidates ignoring the needs and concerns of our state.

Legislation I am sponsoring along with many colleagues this year would address these problems and move us toward a national popular vote for president. Under a national popular vote system, every vote would be equal, and the most votes would win. Candidates would be compelled to campaign everywhere, and neither party could afford to ignore Connecticut. In fact, “whistle-stop campaigns” visiting towns and cities across the Northeast would probably return.

Under Article II, section 1 of the US Constitution, state legislatures have the sole authority – and critical responsibility – to decide how to award their electors. You won’t find the “winner take all” rule in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, it was used by just three states during our nation’s first Presidential election. Most state legislatures simply picked electors, without any vote of the people whatsoever.

Using the power granted to us by the federal Constitution, Connecticut would join a compact with other states to award our electors to the winner of the national popular vote. This agreement would only go into effect when a number of states equaling a majority in the Electoral College agreed to this compact. At that time, whoever won the national popular vote would become President.

The debate over this issue has been healthy. But many of the arguments made against the proposal just don’t hold water.

Recently in The Mirror, my colleague Rep. John Hetherington faulted the measure because it has no requirement that a candidate get an absolute majority of popular votes. But there is no such requirement today. Many U.S. Presidents have been elected by a plurality, including Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton.

It was Lincoln, of course, who called for “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” That basic American sentiment stands at odds with the current practice of making some voters count more than others, and permitting a candidate who didn’t win the most votes to lead the country.

It’s also safe to say Lincoln would have been appalled had he lived to see the 1876 election, which was resolved by what many historians have labeled “the Corrupt Bargain.”

In that election, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden beat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote. But a block of electors in the Electoral College was in dispute, so a political compromise was struck. In return for handing Hayes the election, Democrats won quick withdrawal of federal troops from the South – ending Reconstruction – and bringing decades of racist “Jim Crow” laws that disenfranchised and oppressed millions of African Americans.

Tellingly, I have yet to hear a serious defense of the current system. What is the argument in favor of candidates winning the Presidency without getting the most votes? How could anyone support a system that sidelines two-thirds of the states in the U.S. – including Connecticut – making us spectators in this most important election? Who wants the U.S. House of Representatives or the Supreme Court deciding who our President will be, instead of we the people?

Fortunately, we can correct these problems with a well crafted bill. Seven states have already enacted the National Popular Vote measure. Let’s use the authority the U.S. Constitution grants us and make Connecticut the next state to do so.

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