ANNAPOLIS – The House Republican leader wants to block a movement to give Maryland’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate receiving the most votes nationwide, saying such a move might disenfranchise voters and violate the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.
House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, presented a bill to a House committee calling for a repeal of a state law that might eventually facilitate a national popular vote system for presidential elections.
“I think we made a big mistake,” O’Donnell told the House Ways and Means Committee.
Maryland legislators passed a law in 2007 effectively outflanking the Electoral College system by giving Maryland’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who earns the most votes nationwide.
But Maryland still follows the Electoral College system because the measure does not go into effect until states with a total of 270 electoral votes pass identical legislation favoring a national popular vote. Under the current system, presidential candidates who win the most votes in Maryland receive the state’s 10 electoral votes.
Most states have similar rules.
A national popular vote system might cause a problem if Maryland voters cast more votes for the presidential candidate who does not receive the most votes nationwide, O’Donnell said. In that scenario, a national popular vote system would not give Maryland’s electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most votes in the state.
“I think that would disenfranchise the citizens of Maryland,” he said. “We could have civil insurrection if that were to occur.”
Proponents of a national popular vote argue the Electoral College system discourages candidates from campaigning in states in which they either clearly lead or trail. A nationwide popular vote makes every vote equally valuable to candidates, they argue.
“Under the current system, two-thirds of Americans live in states that are safely red or safely blue,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, in an interview before the hearing. “There is essentially no real presidential contest that takes place in those states.”
Maryland is one of those states, regularly voting in the Democratic column.
Raskin, testifying in front of the House committee, cited 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s decision to stop campaigning in Michigan when polls showed he had little chance of winning the state’s 17 electoral votes.
Changing to a national popular vote format would also prevent situations such as the one that took place in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in the presidential election despite receiving fewer votes nationally, Raskin said.
O’Donnell argued that the national popular vote plan violates the spirit of the Constitution both in principle and in the way it’s being implemented.
The Founding Fathers rejected a system of direct election to protect the interests of the smaller states, he said. And passing legislation at the state level undermines the process for amending the Constitution.
“It clearly subverts the clear intent of our Constitution,” he said.
Seeking to change the election process by changing state laws instead of amending the U.S. Constitution is not a new practice, said Raskin, who teaches constitutional law at the American University Washington College of Law.
“The states have always been in the forefront of making our election changes,” he said in the interview, citing state efforts to grant women and blacks the right to vote before changes to the Constitution. “Constitutional amendments related to the franchise usually ratify changes already underway in the states.”
Raskin was the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the 2007 national popular voting law.
O’Donnell also said that a close election requiring a recount would cause severe logistical problems since there is no national elections board.
A recount would be done at the state level, said Raskin.
States with at least 270 combined electoral votes might pass the necessary legislation by 2012, said Dr. John R. Koza, Chairman of National Popular Vote, Inc., a California-based nonprofit organization which promotes the movement in legislatures nationwide.
“There’s certainly a lot of public support,” he said.
Maryland was the first state to adopt the national popular voting law. Since then, New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois have signed on, giving the movement 19 percent of the required electoral votes.
O’Donnell might struggle to get support for his bill from the Ways and Means Committee, since its chairwoman, Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, was the lead sponsor of the House version.
When asked before the hearing about the chances of his repeal bill passing, O’Donnell paused and smiled slightly.
“I have the audacity of hope,” he said.