Conn. may change electoral college laws

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Photo by Alon Harish.

Connecticut could be the next to join a growing group of states in an effort to establish a national popular vote system for presidential elections.

A group of state legislators in Hartford are advancing a National Popular Vote bill that would have Connecticut join six other states and the District of Columbia in requiring its electors to vote for whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote. Sponsored by State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann (D-West Hartford), the bill passed 10–5 in the General Administration and Elections Committee on Friday. While the roughly party-line vote in committee suggests the bill may fare well in the General Assembly, its fate is still very much in doubt.

Currently, Connecticut — like most other states — awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes in the state.

“This is a pro-democracy bill,” Fleischmann told the Hartford Courant Friday. “This is a bill that makes sure the person who gets the most votes on election day is elected president of the United States.”

By joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Connecticut would be joining a growing movement nationwide that promotes popular vote elections without formally scrapping the Electoral College. The plan would not require a constitutional amendment, since the Constitution gives states the power to choose how to appoint presidential electors.

If passed, the legislation would take effect only if the combined Electoral College votes of the compact reaches 270 of 538, the majority required to secure the presidency.

The Connecticut bill now heads to the floor of the state House of Representatives. In 2009, a similar bill narrowly passed the House, but died before reaching the Senate.

Supporters argue that the Electoral College sidelines Connecticut voters because of the state’s strong tendency to vote for Democrats.

“Presidential candidates have no reason to pay attention to the concerns of voters in states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind,” Ryan O’Donnell, regional director of National Popular Vote, a non-profit organization advocating similar bills nationwide, told the committee. “This makes two-thirds of the states mere spectators.”

Some of the proposal’s origins were at Yale. In a Dec. 2001 FindLaw column, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 and his brother, UC Davis law professor Vikram Amar LAW ’88, argued for a plan similar to the compact now being proposed.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has since come to be known by many as the “Amar Plan.”

The Amar brothers argued that such a compact would be a more politically viable route to the establishment of direct presidential election than a constitutional amendment. If the 11 most populous states in the union joined the compact, the states would have a combined 271 electoral votes, enough to make other elections “sideshows,” the Amar brothers wrote. Amar referred comment to the 2001 column.

Currently, six states — Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington — and the District of Columbia, have passed state laws entering the compact, totaling 74 electoral votes. Similar legislation is pending in four other states: California, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

According to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, about 74 percent of Connecticut voters support presidential election by popular vote.

“I think this approach has a chance to achieve reform where other efforts have failed before,” said State Rep. Roland Lemar, a former New Haven alderman.

The compact would rectify a “fundamental inequity in the Constitution,” and restore the ideal of one person, one vote, said Lemar, who represents parts of New Haven and Hamden.

Still, the bill is not without skeptics.

The bill’s most vocal opponent is State Rep. John Hetherington ’60 LAW ’63 (R-New Canaan), who worried during the committee’s Friday meeting that the compact envisioned in the bill would have unintended consequences. Because all electoral votes would go to the candidate with the most votes, with or without a majority, the bill diminishes the importance of getting a majority of votes.

“We’re going to change the law that currently gives electors a duty to vote in accordance with the will of the people of Connecticut and instead we’re going to devise some system to manipulate the electors so that they can be directed to vote for someone who gets a bare plurality nationally,” said Hetherington, according to the Hartford Courant. “How is that good either for Connecticut or for the United States of America?”

In a statement on his website released two weeks ago, Hetherington alluded to a common criticism of Electoral College reformers: that they are motivated by former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 loss to George W. Bush ’68 despite winning the popular vote. The problems in Fleischmann’s proposal are not worth “[avenging] the outcome of some past election,” Hetherington said in his statement.

Maine has developed a workable alternative to the “winner-takes-all” system, Hetherington said. In Maine, one elector is chosen by each congressional district, with the remaining two electoral votes going to the overall state winner.

Connecticut has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since President George H. W. Bush ’48, who grew up in Connecticut, won in 1988.

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