In November, the Trump-Pence ticket carried the Electoral College by 74 votes out of 538. They won the election. The Clinton-Kaine ticket received a higher popular vote total. They lost the election. Republicans see no problem with this outcome. Resolutely partisan Democrats see a huge problem.
They are convinced that their candidate has been cheated by the Constitution. What’s worse – much worse – is the candidate they hate more than any candidate in history is going to occupy the Oval Office after January 20, 2017. Unable to abolish Donald Trump, they begin to dream of abolishing the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote (NPV).
Paul Mills, Farmington’s pre-eminent lawyer and Maine’s foremost amateur historian, reminds us that the partisan divide on this issue has not always been so categorical. His Nov. 26 column in the Daily Bulldog titled “Overthrowing the Electoral College: The Margaret Chase Smith and Edmund Muskie Experience,” provides the evidence.
Smith was a dutiful, honest, hardworking legislator without much depth. A survey of the bookcases in her Skowhegan home and museum does not reveal much interest in the world beyond her own time and place. There’s no evidence that her understanding of the workings of American democracy extended much beyond the principle of majority rule and familiar legislative processes.
She proposed substituting a national primary for presidential nominations in place of the political convention and caucus system long before the 1968 election energized interest in constitutional revision. In that year George Wallace, running as a “third party” candidate, carried five states. This raised the possibility that neither of the major party candidates (R-Nixon, D-Humphrey) would have an Electoral College majority.
If this happened, the House of Representatives, with each state casting a single vote, would choose the president. The vice president choice would fall to the Senate. To avert this possibility, the House passed an amendment proposed by Rep. Emanuel Celler by 338 votes to 70. This passed the Senate as the Bayh-Celler amendment in 1970, but filibustering denied it the necessary two-thirds majority.
Senator Edmund Muskie, who had been Humphrey’s running mate, argued that the evolution of America from a country of separate, sovereign states into a cohesive national government should see a president who, alone, represents all the people in all the states. A majority of Republicans, including Maine’s senior senator, supported this Democratic-initiated amendment. So did President Nixon.
The National Popular Vote (NPV) plan, offering an alternative to a amending the Constitution, has been debated in successive sessions of Maine’s legislature. In 2013 our legislators’ lives were enriched with the fourth edition and eleventh printing of “Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote.” The first edition appeared in February 2006. There’s no telling how many legislators have used it as a reference source, but we can be pretty sure that none of them have slogged through its entire 1028 pages.
Dr. John R. Koza, a high-tech entrepreneur who founded and chairs the NPV organization, has devised an ingenious plan called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). Under this compact the District of Columbia and individual state could agree to award all their “collegiate” votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the 50 states. In this way the Electoral College would remain as an empty shell.
Chellie Pingree was among those presenting the plan at a Feb. 2006 press conference. As Maine’s second district Democratic congresswoman she provided a blurb for the 2013 edition. Maine’s Senate passed a national popular vote bill in April 2008.
As of this year the Interstate Compact has been adopted by ten states and the District of Columbia. These represent 165 electoral votes, 30.7 percent of the College total and 61.1 percent of the number needed to give it legal force. All of these states were controlled by the Democratic Party when they committed to the compact, although five now have Republican governors. The NPV organization has taken great pains to represent itself as a bi-partisan organization. “Every Vote Equal” starts out with no fewer than 22 separate Forwards, 11 of them by Republicans.
Nevertheless the Republicans, who hold a 31-18 advantage in the 50 State Houses and have 33 governors, are happy with their 2016 victory. The Democrats’ noisy unhappiness makes them still happier. It’s unlikely that Dr. Koza’s project will gain much ground in the near future.