Time to Abolish Electoral College?

In a bipartisan alliance to abolish the Electoral College, Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he will join California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein’s proposal to get rid of the electoral system used to choose U.S. presidents and replace it with a one-person, one-vote popular plebiscite.

Feinstein said recently she will introduce legislation to eliminate the Electoral College, which has its roots in the 18th century, and to use the popular vote to determine the White House victor.

Chafee said the Electoral College makes too many voters irrelevant in the modern presidential election process. Rhode Island, seen as a staunchly Democratic state in presidential politics, has received virtually no attention from major party presidential candidates in recent election cycles, Chafee said.

“Under the current system, the only states that get any candidate visits are the battleground states,” said Chafee. “As a Rhode Islander … I’d like to see the presidential candidates make an investment in Rhode Island. The last election came down to just Ohio and Florida.”

What is more, Chafee said, is that a tie in the Electoral College in a presidential election would push the decision into the House of Representatives, where each state would get one vote. That, Chafee said, would not be a representative system.

Chafee acknowledged that the legislation abolishing the Electoral College is not likely to receive serious attention from the Republican Senate leadership. “Its chances of seeing the light of day are slim … but it is the right thing to do.”

The legislation will probably be introduced Jan. 24, the first day senators can submit legislation, said Howard Gantman, Feinstein’s spokesman.

And despite popular support, the proposal would face a difficult path because it would require a constitutional amendment. It takes a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress and ratification by 38 states for an amendment to become law.

It is an irony of the 21st century that presidential elections in an era of the Internet and internationl jet travel are decided by the Electoral College, a system established by men _ no women were allowed to vote _ who communicated by quill pen and horseback mail and traveled by clipper ship.

The system was erected by the men who founded the United States in 1789 because they did not trust average citizens. Voting was restricted to white males who owned property. And they allowed those voters to select only one segment of the U.S. government _ the federal House of Representatives.

U.S. senators were chosen by legislatures until 1913, when popular election of senators was established. The founders established the Electoral College _ which in those days was made up of community and political leaders _ to pick the president.

The Electoral College has evolved into a system that favors small states _ those with fewer than 10 electoral votes _ and focuses presidential campaigns almost entirely on closely contested states.

Each state’s electoral vote is determined by adding the number of representatives, which is determined by population, and senators. Each state gets two senators, so California, with more than 30 million residents, and Rhode Island, with about 1 million, each start with two electoral votes. The rest of each state’s electoral votes are determined by the number of people living in a state, as measured every 10 years by the Census Bureau.

In almost every state, electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, meaning that a candidate who wins Rhode Island by 100,000 votes or 1 vote gets all of the state’s 4 electoral votes.