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How to bring about true democracy

Anne Devlin, from Plano, Texas, cried after the Electoral College voted at the state Capitol in Austin on Monday. Tamir Kalifa/AP

It’s time for some citizen activism to help America break free of its 18th-century antidemocratic anchor. I’m talking about the Electoral College, of course.

On Monday, electors made our electile dysfunction official: The Electoral College will install as president a man who didn’t win the national popular vote and thus can’t claim any kind of coherent mandate.

Now, Donald Trump might have been speaking — well, tweeting — hyperbolically in 2012 when, thinking that Mitt Romney was going to win the popular vote but lose the presidency, he called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy.”

But it certainly isn’t healthy to have the popular vote loser become president, as will now happen for the second time in 16 years. And which easily could have occurred a third time: If 60,000 voters had gone the other way in Ohio in 2004, John Kerry would have been president, despite a popular vote edge for incumbent George W. Bush of about three million. That is, a slightly larger margin than Hillary Clinton’s advantage over Trump.


Let me anticipate the coming objection: If US presidential elections were determined by the national popular vote, the candidates would have pursued different strategies, which would have changed the popular vote tally. Trump certainly thinks so. “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily,” he tweeted.

Perhaps that’s why, after his victory, he told “60 Minutes,” “I would rather see it, where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes, and somebody else gets 90 million votes, and you win.” It’s hard to argue with that — even though Trump has since said he hadn’t previously appreciated the “genius” of the Electoral College.

Dispel all the palaver, and the real effect of the Electoral College is to reduce a national election to a game of swing-state hopscotch, in which candidates focus on 10 or 12 competitive states while ignoring large swaths of the country. It’s why competitive Florida and Ohio see a welter of campaign activity while Republican Texas and Democratic California are virtually ignored.


According to a new Marist poll, a majority of voters think the popular vote should carry the day. And there’s a way to bring that about without amending the Constitution. Under the National Popular Vote initiative, states pass legislation to join a (constitutionally allowed) interstate compact committing themselves to awarding their electoral votes to the winner of the national vote. When enough states join to bring the compact membership’s electoral vote tally to the 270 threshold, the new system goes into effect.

In the last decade, 10 states (and the District of Columbia), with a total of 165 electoral votes, have passed such laws. So how to accelerate the pace? Well, citizens in other states could use the ballot-question process to speed things along. In some states — Colorado, Arizona, Montana, and Oregon, for example — proposals that receive enough signatures go directly to the ballot. In others — Michigan and Ohio prominent among them — citizen initiatives first go to the legislature for consideration; if rejected there, they can then be put on the statewide ballot.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and a key player in the NPV campaign, sounds a note of caution, saying that a reform this important shouldn’t become a partisan issue. Real change takes time, she says, but with the NPV now more than halfway home — 61 percent of the way, in fact — it’s imperative to keep at it.

“Any change worth fighting for is worth a long-term investment,” she says.


Particularly when the change is as crucial as this one — and when there’s a golden opportunity for citizen activists to help redeem our increasingly dysfunctional democracy.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.