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California should join the popular vote parade

Though it is rare, the occasional American presidential election goes to the loser of the popular vote, an outcome that undermines basic notions of fairness and democracy and is an artifact of the nation’s ancient electoral system. Advocates of a popular vote system have persuaded both houses of the California Legislature to adopt a measure that would lend California’s support to that idea. Gov. Jerry Brown should sign it.

In drafting the U.S. Constitution, the framers created a two-tiered system for electing presidents. States were allowed to set rules for selecting electors, and those electors then cast ballots for president. That reflected the framers’ generally wary view of direct democracy — senators were originally chosen by state legislatures; women and slaves, of course, were denied the vote entirely — but in the years since, Americans have broadened the franchise and become more comfortable with direct popular participation. Still, vestiges of that original elitism remain, most notably in the perseverance of the electoral college.

Moving from a state-by-state system of electing presidents to choosing them by popular vote does not appreciably favor one party or the other. Yes, the most recent example of a president winning the office while losing the popular vote was George W. Bush in 2000. But had John Kerry carried a mere 60,000 additional votes in Ohio in 2004, he would have become president while losing the popular contest by more than 3 million. The reason, then, to award the presidency to the candidate who receives the most votes is not to advantage Republicans or Democrats but to seat the candidates favored by the most voters.

To bring about this change, the California bill — like others across the country — would require the state to award its electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationally (rather than throwing them behind the one who wins the most votes in the state). Because the system would go into effect only when enough states agree to participate that they control a majority of electoral votes, that would guarantee the presidency to the winner of the popular vote. So far, eight states with 77 electoral votes — out of 270 needed to win — have signed on. California would add 55.

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Americans today elect representatives at all levels of public life by popular vote, with the exception of the most important office of all. This plan would end that anomaly. It deserves to become law.


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