posted by Josh Goodman
While much has been made of the effect a bill making its way through the California legislature could have on presidential politics, the impact could be just as big on federal-state relations.
In case you missed it, the California Assembly recently approved legislation to award the state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of who carries the Golden State. The catch is that the measure would go into effect only if enough other states approved equivalent legislation so as to ensure the popular vote winner an electoral vote majority--and therefore the presidency. In other words, it wouldn't matter at all which candidates carried which states, only who won the most votes nationwide.
Thus, California state lawmakers aspire to create a multi-state compact to effectively do away with the method for selecting the head of the federal government that has existed throughout U.S. history. Considering that ditching the Electoral College has been a fruitless topic of discussion in Congress for, oh, 190 years, it's hard to imagine a more audacious goal for state officials or one that would be more of a slap in the face to the federal government.
Of course, state and local governments acting where the feds won't isn't anything new. I recently wrote about this phenomenon with regard to climate change and a Governing feature a couple of years ago described how California legislation often becomes de facto U.S. policy. But there's a big difference between passing pioneering environmental legislation and arguably defying the spirit, though not the actual words, of the U.S. Constitution (The Constitution says each state's electoral votes are to be awarded "in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct...").
While the California gambit is certainly bold, that doesn't mean it's necessarily a pipe dream. The Colorado Senate has also approved the popular vote compact and similar measures are being considered in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana. It would only take the 11 most populous states getting together to hand a majority of electoral votes to the popular-vote winner.
The great irony here is that while these efforts speak to the power of state governments, they run counter to the traditional doctrine of states' rights. The main point of the Electoral College, as well as the reason Wyoming and California get the same number of U.S. senators, is that states were viewed as quasi-sovereign entities that each needed and deserved its own representation. If state governments themselves reject that view, it will make the concept look awfully obsolete.