Dec. 14 was Election Day again in America. Across the country, 538 electors cast their Electoral College votes in (almost) the last strange act of our presidential election system. How relieved we were that there were no surprises, no mischief, and the outcome confirmed that other election just six weeks past.

Elizabeth Gross votes Nov. 3 in Portland. Just 12 states received 96 percent of the 2020 general-election campaign events by the major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Maine had two visits. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Electors did their job, casting votes representing their states’ popular vote winner; the declared winner matched the person who won the Nov. 3 national popular vote.

But in Washington on Wednesday, Congress was nearly prevented from carrying out the usually ceremonial task of certifying the presidential victory – derailed after the Republican challenge to the election of Joe Biden escalated into an attack by mobs on the Capitol that forced lawmakers to temporarily suspend the process.

And in our fantastical electoral system, we’ve awarded the presidency to the runner-up in the general election twice in the last 20 years and had many near misses, including in 2020. A shift in a mere 22,000 votes across three states would have cost Biden the election, despite his winning 7 million more votes than Donald Trump.

Similarly, a shift of just 9,246 votes in two states could have cost Jimmy Carter the Electoral College in spite of his 1.7 million vote lead. And in 2004, if 60,000 Ohio votes were cast the other way, John Kerry would have won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote to George W. Bush by 3 million votes.

These near-misses are not Electoral College flukes, but flaws. Small margins in just a few states mean that those votes are worth more than votes in Maine, which, like 35 other states, has voted reliably for the same party for the last six elections.

Most states award their electoral votes by the winner-take-all method. The candidate who wins the statewide popular vote gets all the electoral votes (Maine breaks it down to the district level). States are either safe, spectator states (those 36 states that vote consistently for a single party) or battleground states. State winner-take-all makes all the votes for the loser essentially worthless, and drives down turnout.

In Maine in 2020, 167,076 votes cast in the 2nd District for the Democrat and 164,503 votes cast in the 1st District for the Republican were irrelevant. In our winner-take-all district method, over 2.2 million votes cast for the Republican presidential candidate since 1992 yielded exactly two electoral votes – and neither was determinative in the election result.

Across every state, in every presidential election, millions of votes for both parties are ignored, just as tens of thousands of Maine votes are ignored.

And candidates campaign only where there’s something to gain or lose. Just 12 states received 96 percent of the 2020 general-election campaign events by the major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Maine had two visits.

Thirty-three states, including small states, rural states, big states and urban states, had zero visits; but Florida had 31 and Pennsylvania, 47.

Take away the state winner-take-all systems, and candidates will be motivated to seek out every vote – rural, urban, small state and large – because every vote in every state will matter. Just as governors seek out every vote in their statewide races (not just the cities, not just the rural areas), presidential campaigns will criss-cross the entire country for every vote.

State winner-take-all-methods are causing real damage today, but constitutional changes can take decades and face long odds in the current political climate.

The National Popular Vote bill, though, provides a way to work within the Electoral College, without constitutional changes, to ensure that the candidate with the most votes nationally wins the presidency; that every vote in every state in every presidential election is equal and matters; and that candidates are motivated to campaign in every state. It’s nonpartisan and favors voters, not land, parties, politicians, geography or one state over another.

States joining the National Popular Vote bill, which will be re-introduced in Maine’s 130th Legislature, agree to cast their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner. Since 2007, states representing 196 of the needed 270 electoral votes have joined, including four small states. The agreement will go into effect – potentially as soon as 2024 – when states representing just 74 more electoral votes join. With the National Popular Vote, the Electoral College outcome will always match the will of the majority of all voters.

It’s time to let the people pick the president.


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