An anti–Electoral College group may have another state in its corner by Thursday. The National Popular Vote effort has been trying for years to get Rhode Island on board with its plan. Its proponents have learned from past failures; they are using what they’ve learned to ram NPV through before voters realize what has hit them.
NPV nearly succeeded in 2008. The legislature passed the plan, but then-governor Donald Carcieri vetoed the measure. In 2009, NPV came close again. The Senate approved the bill, but this time the House rejected it. The measure has been reintroduced several times, but fails when it languishes on the House or Senate floors for too long without a vote.
This year, there will be no such lag between the committee and floor votes. The measure has been scheduled for votes in both House and Senate committees today. Floor votes are anticipated early, on Thursday. The tally will be close. Democrats, as well as Republicans, are opposed to the measure, but it is unclear which side has more momentum.
Rhode Island has at least two good reasons to oppose the NPV bill.
First, and perhaps most obviously, Rhode Island is a small state: It has only four electoral votes. In 1787, the small size of the state kept Rhode Island from sending delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Islanders feared the powerful national government that might result. Indeed, the state was so fiercely independent that the other colonies called it “Rogue’s Island.” What has changed since then? Have the other states suddenly become so altruistic and so willing to put Rhode Island’s interests on par with their own? Rhode Island still needs an election system that forces presidential candidates to pay attention to small states.
Last year, New Hampshire was a swing state. Will Rhode Island or New Hampshire ever matter again when they can be outvoted by one city in California?
Second, there are serious legal problems created by NPV’s end-run around the constitutional-amendment process. Electoral College opponent and respected law professor Vikram David Amar has described a “substantial problem” with the plan: “It does not guarantee a true national election with uniform voter qualification, voter mechanics, and vote-counting standards. Absent such uniformity, some states might have incentives to obstruct or manipulate vote counts.” Akhil Reed Amar, also a law professor, agrees that “states will have an incentive to over-compete. One state will say, ‘We’ll let 17-year olds vote,’ and another state will say, ‘We’ll let 16-year olds vote.’” Amar continues, “Is it really fair if one state lets you vote for three months, and another only for three hours? These are real issues.”
Both Amars see federal, national solutions to these problems. Vikram proposes “congressional action” and Akhil notes that “you’ll need to have some federal oversight, which is a good thing, actually.”
Perhaps that is the real reason that so many are supporting NPV: They want to centralize our presidential-election process. At a time when the federal government is proving itself so untrustworthy, do we want to give it still more power? Do we want presidents running for reelection while they have the power of appointment over the heads of a new federal-election bureaucracy?
Rhode Island legislators may protect their state and their freedom best by remembering the very real fears that kept their predecessors away from the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
— Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.