There is great irony in a legislative proposal to embrace the National Popular Vote, which would change how Oregon helps elect our nation’s president.
Senate Bill 870 would require that Oregon’s votes in the Electoral College be cast for whomever wins the national popular vote for president, regardless of the election outcome in Oregon. The bill’s backers say they believe in “one person, one vote.” However, they are adamant against letting voters make that change through a ballot measure. Instead, they insist the Legislature do so.
The bill passed the Senate on a 17-12 vote and passed out of the House Rules Committee on a party-line vote with no discussion. It was scheduled for a vote on the House floor Tuesday.
The Oregon House passed similar bills 2009, 2013 and 2015, only to see the legislation disappear in the Senate. Last time, supporters of the National Popular Vote refused to accept a compromise offered by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to send the proposal to voters.
This year, advocates started in the Senate, where the increased number of liberal Democratic senators ensured passage of SB 870.
Our nation’s founders created a process in which electors — now referred to as the Electoral College, a term that does not appear in the Constitution — choose the president and vice president. This arrangement was an 18th century compromise between Congress’ electing the president and having the people do so. It also gave a greater voice to smaller states, although advocates of the National Popular Vote say that no longer applies.
The Electoral College has proved controversial, to say the least. Through the centuries, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. The impetus stems in large part from five presidents — including two of the past three — losing the popular vote but winning the presidency via the Electoral College.
That is how Republicans Donald Trump and George W. Bush came to occupy the White House instead of Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000. The other three, in case you’re wondering, are presidents Benjamin Harrison (1888), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and John Quincy Adams (1824).
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, recalled that recent history in urging her fellow senators, unsuccessfully, to send the issue to voters.
“There are two words not mentioned in Senate Bill 870: Donald Trump. In my opinion, he’s the reason the National Popular Vote has caught on so aggressively of late,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to end an historic institution, let it be prompted by something loftier than dislike for one particular president.
“Let regular voters make that decision, not the Legislature.”
Johnson, Courtney and Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, voted against the bill. Two Republicans voted for it: Brian Boquist of Dallas and Chuck Thomsen of Hood River.
SB 870 would add Oregon to the 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have adopted the “Interstate Compact for Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.”
If Oregon joined, participating jurisdictions would have a collective total of 196 electoral votes. The compact will become legally binding once enough more states have joined to reach an Electoral College majority: 270 votes.
The Electoral College comprises 538 electors. Each state has as many electors as it does U.S. senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives, giving Oregon seven electors. And under the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allocated three electors.
Like most other states, Oregon has required its electors to cast their Electoral College ballots for whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote in their own state, regardless of what happened nationally.
Feelings run strong on both sides of the issue. Advocates of the National Popular Vote consider the Electoral College an anachronism from an era in which the white male elite made all the decisions. They contend the current system disenfranchises members of political minorities — for example, Republicans in Oregon, Democrats in Idaho — because such states are predictably blue or red in presidential races.
Opponents warn that Americans should be very wary of tinkering with the U.S. Constitution, even in a roundabout way. They say the change would make it even less likely that presidential candidates would personally campaign in Oregon or other small states.
In any case, this is an issue that deserves to be decided by Oregon’s 2,783,496 registered voters, not 90 legislators.