June 25, 2008
Sen. Nelson (FL) introduces One Person, One Vote Initiative
Senator Bill Nelson’s attempt at comprehensive reform, S.J.Res. 39, was just introduced in the U.S. Senate. Because it is so late in the cycle the bill has little chance of passing before the new Congress is sworn in next January. The “One Person, One Vote Initiative” contains some intriguing elements, including a proposed Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College.
Any constitutional amendment faces an uphill battle because of the need for passage by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress followed by adoption by three-fourths of the 50 states (Article V). Not likely to happen very quickly.
For those in need of a refresher about why the Electoral College was created by the Framers, it should be said that those who designed our Constitutional system never envisioned that the President would be elected by popular vote. They planned to have state legislatures select the members of the Electoral College who would in turn gather to vote for President and Vice-President.
This process may seem cumbersome and perhaps quaint in the age of cell phones, instant messaging and social networking sites. However, since Baker v Carr established the principle of “one man, one vote” in 1962 there has been a basic shift in the American political landscape that is marked an increasing expectation that the popular vote is important and should determine electoral outcomes. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote, due to the Scalia Five’s ruling in Bush v Gore. This outcome was widely seen as unfair, undemocratic and contrary to the will of the people. In 2004 when Bush appeared to win both the popular and electoral vote, despite serious questions about dirty tricks, voter suppression, voting machine errors — and there was not the same perception of unfairness. The American public more readily accepted the 2004 results than they did the 2000 outcome.
Now Senator Nelson proposes that the Electoral College be abolished altogether. This is a direct move that would abolish the traditional role of the states in the selection of the President and Vice-President. But it will take a while to accomplish because of the Constitutional amendment process. Or as MLDB diaries on Daily Kos. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/6/6/20562/91614/501/531392
Abolishing the electoral college cannot come fast enough IMO. There is no need to rehash to trauma the electoral college system has wrought on the nation due to the 2000 election. And with speculation that 2008 could be a repeat (with a vastly bigger popular vote margin in favor of Obama), it’s nice to see some moves being made toward making it happen.
There is another proposal out there called the National Popular Vote (NPV), which is kind of an end run around the Constitution. It calls for a compact between states to agree to cast their electoral votes for the announced popular vote winner. So far a number of state legislatures have passed this measure but not yet enough to activate its provisions. One problem with the NPV proposal is that it would not need to be universal for it to be triggered. Some states would have opted in to NPV and would be casting their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner while others would still be casting their electoral votes the traditional way based on the vote tally in their individual states. Another problem with the NPV proposal is the harsh reality that the requirements of the inter-state compact could lead to a situation where a state could be expected to cast its electoral votes for the candidate who lost in that state, possibly by a sizable margin. This would be counter to the “one man, one vote” principle and would be deeply anti-democratic in that it would not be reflective of the will of the voters in that state.
There are several other reforms packed into the Nelson bill that do not require a Constitutional amendment but still call for thoughtful consideration. These include Rotating Primaries, Nationwide Early Voting, No-Excuse Absentee Ballot, encouraging Vote By Mail and requiring a Voter Verified Paper Ballot. I will recap MLDB‘s analysis below.
Establish rotating primaries: The 2008 election has demonstrated our primary system is broken. This legislation will give both large and small states a fair say in selecting presidential nominees, and will do away with unrepresentative caucuses controlled by party bosses. It divides the nation into six regions and establishes six primary dates beginning in March and ending in June. On each of the six dates, states in each region of the country will be represented on a rotating basis.
Allow nationwide early voting: Restricting voting to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November unduly restricts many voters from getting to the polls. The bill will take what has been instituted successfully in Florida – early voting – and expand it to cover the entire nation, so that voters can go to a designated polling place before Election Day and cast their vote. [www.whytuesday.org ]
Allow absentee ballot on demand: Some states still require a voter attest to an inability to get to the polls on Election Day in order to obtain an absentee ballot. The legislation would remove this barrier to voting to impose a nationwide requirement that states issue qualified voters an absentee ballot on demand.
Encourage vote-by-mail: The bill would provide grants to jurisdictions that wish to institute pilot programs for full-fledged vote-by-mail elections, based on Oregon’s successful model. Any such pilot program would need to contain adequate safeguards to ensure full inclusion of all voters regardless of race, language, or disability, and guard against fraud.
Require vote verification: The legislation takes nationwide the voting technology reforms instituted last year in Florida. It would require there be a verifiable paper ballot to accompany every vote that is cast, which now is required in Florida and in several other states.
One vital reform missing from this list is a requirement for a post-election audit of the paper ballots. Having paper ballots without instituting a robust statistically sound audit is akin to installing a burglar alarm and then failing to turn it on. Rep. Rush Holt’s bill H.R. 811 contains requirements for post-election audits. Too bad Senator Nelson did not include these provisions from H.R. 811 in his otherwise comprehensive bill.
For those who wish to read the text of the Nelson bill — S.J.Res. 39 — here is the liink: http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:S.J.RES.39: