In the last few months, legislators have been bombarded with emails from citizens all over the state wishing to change the Electoral College into a national popular vote system. Many people have written to me explaining that the system is antiquated and broken. One of the frustrations commonly expressed to me is that "Oregon doesn't matter in presidential elections." They attribute the Electoral College as the cause of being ignored and want to change our system to a national popular vote.
In some ways a national popular vote sounds attractive and I understand its appeal to certain democratic ideals. However, I think there may be a few things that the proponents of a national popular vote may not have considered about the utility of the Electoral College.
Our country is a republic. The individual states form the republic that is known as the United States of America. As some of you are aware, the Electoral College was put in place to give the smaller states a larger voice than they would have under a direct democracy. This helps protect minority opinion and differing ways of life. The people who live in the South certainly do not live like those in Los Angeles. The farmers, ranchers and growers of the Midwestern States do not live like those in the urban or metro areas. I think it is important that the proponents of direct democratic presidential elections to remember what it takes to have a mature, healthy, functioning democracy — protections for the minority against what many political philosophers have labeled "the tyranny of the majority."
The history of our republic is rife with examples of the struggle between the majority and minority. In this regard, removing the protections of the electoral college are inherently undemocratic. Switching to a national popular vote could have the very opposite effect of what the Oregon proponents of the national popular vote are advocating.
For example, Oregon is a small state with a little over 4 million in population. In comparison, the city of Los Angeles alone is over 4 million. A national popular vote would make no guarantee any presidential candidate would come to Oregon. In fact, it could have the opposite effect resulting in candidates focusing on the large metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Instead of "making Oregon matter" in presidential elections, it is likely that a national popular vote would only exacerbate the very frustration the proponents are trying to fix.
Perhaps, a more pragmatic solution would be to advocate that the states change their winner-take-all approach in the electoral college system. Individual states have the power to decide how to allocate their electoral votes. The states could consider what other allocations might serve them better.
Maine and Nebraska are the only states that don't use a winner-take-all approach. They are now using a system of "at-large" and or "congressional districts" to allocate electors, instead of allocating all of them to one candidate.
This sort of change would allow big states like Florida to no longer be a "winner-take-all" state. It would divide its votes up proportionally to each candidate according to how the popular vote turned out within each congressional district. Instead of one candidate getting all electoral votes, even by a slim margin, this would allow for better representation of a state that has historically been divided or has been considered a battleground split state. This approach would give the states better representation within their own geographical diversity, most notably around the urban-rural divide.
There are drawbacks to the Electoral College, but there are virtues as well. Before we change the Electoral College, we should consider all of the unintended consequences of a national popular vote. If we must change the Electoral College, then we need to conserve the aspects of that tradition that provide protections for minority voters within each state.
Sen. Kim Thatcher serves District 13, which
includes Sherwood and portions of Washington County west of Tigard and Beaverton. She
is vice-chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary