The state Senate has passed a bill that would allow Oregon to join the states that have banded together in an attempt to bypass the electoral college. The measure now goes to the House, which likely will pass it — but representatives should give this proposal careful consideration.
Under the terms of Senate Bill 870, which passed on a mostly partisan vote with Democrats mainly in favor, Oregon would join the National Vote Interstate Compact, a pledge between states to give their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. In other words, if a Democratic presidential candidate won the national popular vote, Oregon's seven electoral votes would go to that candidate, regardless of how the state voted. If a Republican candidate won the national popular vote, Oregon's seven votes would go to the Republican, regardless of how the state voted.
The compact is fueled by Democratic anger over a pair of recent presidential elections in which the electoral college awarded the presidency to Republican candidates who did not win the popular vote. This happened most recently in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The compact would only go into effect when enough states join to reach 270 votes, the threshold needed to win the presidency. The idea behind the compact has been kicking around for a decade, and now is 81 votes shy of reaching that 270 goal; 14 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the compact. If the bill becomes law, Oregon's seven electoral votes would be added to that tally.
The electoral college is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but attempts to introduce a constitutional amendment to scrap it have hit a dead end in Congress. The National Vote Interstate Compact wouldn't require a change to the Constitution; it is, essentially, a way to short-circuit this particular part of the Constitution, and that in itself should give lawmakers pause.
Opponents of the electoral college say that the system gives an extraordinary amount of power to a handful of swing states, where presidential hopefuls spend the most of their money and attention. Supporters of the electoral college include smaller, more rural states, which fear scrapping the system would mean candidates would pay more attention to densely populated areas to secure the maximum amount of votes. If this compact eventually falls into place, we suspect that's exactly what will happen — states like Oregon might get attention from presidential candidates only on those occasions when they swing through Portland. We suspect that general neglect of rural states and states with smaller populations would continue for those candidates who actually win the presidency.
Supporters of the bill such as, well, Democratic senators from the Portland area argued that switching to a popular vote model enhances the voices of rural voters. Sen. Shemia Fagan, a Democrat from Portland, has said that Republicans in Oregon often feel inconsequential because the state's large Democratic base means that the state almost always votes for Democratic presidential candidates.
First, it was telling that Republicans in the Senate did not race to endorse this argument. (Sen. Fred Girod voted against the bill; Sen. Sara Gelser supported it.) Second, our hunch is that shelving the electoral college will only increasingly dampen the voices of voters in rural states. You know how rural Oregon residents sometimes lament the increasing political power of the Portland metro area? If the National Vote Interstate Compact gets to 270 votes, that sort of power shift could occur on a national scale.
As we have argued in the past, dissatisfaction with the electoral college sometimes stems from a failure to grasp the essential organizational foundation of the United States. We are one nation, but in presidential elections we act as a collection of federal states. Each one makes a decision on president. The result is a combination of the decisions in 50 states. Even if somebody thinks the system has flaws, that's no reason to sidestep the Constitution. (mm)