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Gary Pearce: Should popular vote decide president?

By Gary Pearce

From police to portraits and from statues to school buildings, Americans are taking a new look at our racial — and racist — past. One legacy of that past is the Electoral College for electing presidents.

You may think it takes a constitutional amendment to change that. Not so. An ingenuous workaround is working its way around the country, and North Carolina could become part of it.

We don’t elect presidents the way we elect everything else, from city council to Congress. For president, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the total of its two senators and members of Congress — 538 in all. To be president, a candidate has to win enough states to get 270 electoral votes.

You don’t have to win the popular vote. Both George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College. It happened three times in the 19th Century: 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes) and 1888 (Benjamin Harrison). It could happen again this year.

Because of 2000 and 2016, the issue has become partisan. But reform has support from Republicans, like former National Chair Michael Steele and some state-level officials.

Let’s take off our partisan glasses and look at history.

The Electoral College was a compromise in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers didn’t trust a “democratic mob” to elect a president. Instead, the people would elect wise, sober “electors” to pick the President. Elitism beat out populism.

Slavery came in when it came to deciding how many electors each state would have. Southern states wouldn’t go for assigning electors according to free white residents only. Then the North would dominate. The result was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person.

Some 40% of the people living in the South were slaves. Virginia, where slaves were 60 percent of the population, got 12 electoral votes, more than one-fourth of the 46 required then to win the presidency.

For 32 of the nation’s first 36 years, a slave-holding Virginian occupied the White House. John Adams from Massachusetts was the exception

The Civil War ended slavery, but not the Electoral College. The Civil War also changed the nation from a collection of states (“The United States are…”) to an indivisible nation (“The United States is…”)

Still, the Electoral College endures.

Abolishing it by constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote by Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That isn’t going to happen.

A group called National Popular Vote is pushing an interstate compact that would keep the Electoral College but ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes president.

How? By getting states with a total of 270 electoral votes to assign their votes to the popular vote winner nationally, not the winner in their states.

To date, states with 196 electoral votes have joined the compact. The bill has been introduced by Democratic legislators in North Carolina (15 electors, maybe 16 soon), but it’s not going anywhere in the Republican legislature. At its virtual state convention in June, the North Carolina Democratic Party endorsed the idea.

The compact’s supporters argue that Presidential elections aren’t truly national; they’re decided in just six to 10 battleground states. The 40-some other states are predictably Democratic or Republican. Sometimes North Carolina is a battleground, sometimes not.

With a national popular vote, every American’s vote counts the same. Candidates would have an incentive to campaign everywhere for every vote.

Is this an idea whose time has come? It may come here if Democrats take the legislature in 2020.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt. He blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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