I spoke to a lot of audiences during the recent election season, and invariably someone would stand up and ask whether I thought we should ditch the Electoral College and choose our presidents via the national popular vote. I always answered yes. And people always applauded.
I was surprised the first time that happened, but then I checked the public opinion polls. It turns out that we have long been a nation of College "dropouts"; according to the folks at Gallup, a majority of Americans has consistently favored a popular-vote decision for the last 50 years.
This sentiment makes perfect sense, considering all the ways that the archaic Electoral College - devised by the Founding Fathers partly as a sop to Southern slaveholders - undercuts the core tenets of democracy. It essentially disenfranchises millions of voters, depresses voter turnout, favors the small states at the expense of the populous states, and has, on four occasions, handed the presidency to the guy who got fewer votes than his opponent.
Foreigners cannot fathom why we cling to this institution. Last year, two visiting radio journalists from Singapore asked me, "Why doesn't America simply give the presidency to the person who gets the most votes?" I was barely able to explain how the Electoral College works, much less defend it.
Yet this remnant of the powdered-wig era endures. Eight days from now, the 538 electors will formally cast their votes for president. Virtually all of them will honor the results in their respective states. Given the decisive victory for Barack Obama, there will be no drama - unlike eight years ago, when the popular-vote loser ultimately got the prize.
And, lest we forget, the same thing nearly happened four years ago, when a switch of just 59,388 votes in Ohio would have handed the presidency to John Kerry - even though he trailed President Bush in the national tally by 3.5 million votes.
Crises aside, consider these routine injustices: Democrats who live in states such as Texas and Alabama, and Republicans who live in states such as New York and California, are essentially doomed to cast meaningless votes, because the odds are overwhelming that their candidates will never win statewide. Only the "swing state" citizens get to feel important at election time - which explains, for instance, why candidates typically lavish far more attention on Florida than on Massachusetts.
The first principle of democracy is that all votes should be equal. But if you live in a state where the outcome seems foreordained, why bother to vote?
I took a few blue-state samplings. Everybody knew that Obama would beat John McCain in California, and the state's turnout was down 250,000 from 2004. New York had 400,000 fewer voters than in 2004. Oregon was down 130,000. And Washington state was down 200,000.
The big states, whether red or blue, get shortchanged anyway - thanks to the political deal hatched by the Founders to boost rural clout. For instance, Wyoming, with 515,000 people, gets three electors (equal to two senators and one House member), while Pennsylvania, with 12.4 million people, gets 21 electors (equal to two senators and 19 House members). Do the math: That's 172,000 people for each Wyoming elector, and 592,000 people for each Pennsylvania elector. This disparity violates the Supreme Court-endorsed principle of one person, one vote.
Nor does the College seem consistent with a 21st-century, colorblind society. The original deal was cut partly to mollify Southerners seeking to protect slavery, who feared domination by the more populous North under popular-vote elections.
Each state got as many electors as members of Congress; the size of each congressional delegation was determined by the state's population; and each state was permitted to boost its population by tallying its disenfranchised slaves. The truly creative part was that each slave, for purposes of the tally, was judged to be 60 percent of a person. Now that we have advanced to the point of recognizing African Americans as whole people, maybe it's time to talk about Electoral College reform.
In fact, some smart reformers have figured out a way to elect presidents by popular vote without even amending the Constitution. You're probably not aware of this three-year-old campaign - detailed at nationalpopularvote.com - but it's worth noting that four states, including New Jersey, have already enacted laws to make it a reality.
The states are being lobbied to pass laws requiring their electors to support the winner of the national popular vote. It's a pretty simple concept. The Electoral College would be reduced to a purely ceremonial role, much like the British monarchy. And it's constitutional, because the Founders, in Article II, merely stated that each state shall appoint electors; they gave the legislatures free rein to determine how those electors should vote.
More than 40 states currently have bills in the hopper, so maybe there's a reason to hope, despite our long-standing institutional inertia. In the words of one national magazine, "the very tempo and tone of U.S. democracy demand reform. Direct popular election of the president is the next logical step."
That passage appeared in Time magazine on Sept. 20, 1968 - 40 years ago. We would-be dropouts are still waiting.