If not for a close race for the Democratic nomination, North Carolina likely wouldn't attract the attention that's expected before May 6 from presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Instead, we would be continuing to watch as campaigns focus attention on states like Florida and Ohio. And some state lawmakers are hoping to change that.
The state Senate in May passed a bill to let North Carolina join an agreement among states to award its electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. The bill, which this year could be up for debate in the House of Representatives, would essentially circumvent the Electoral College.
"The way it stands right now, candidates just don't campaign in an awful lot of states, including states like North Carolina," says state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, the Charlotte Democrat who sponsored the bill. "With the popular vote, you can't do that. You've got to take every vote seriously all across the nation."
Only two states, Maryland and New Jersey, have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, though it awaits a governor's signature in Illinois and is on the legislative calendars of at least a dozen states. California legislators passed such a bill this year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. The goal, Clodfelter says, is to get enough states to join before the 2012 presidential election.
The movement has backing from a fairly bipartisan slate of former Congressional leaders, including one-time Independent presidential candidate John Anderson and Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind, "There seems to be some money behind this effort," says Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who supports the National Popular Vote.
Efforts to abolish the Electoral College aren't new. More constitutional amendments have been proposed on the issue than on any other, says Alex Keyssar, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. But the popular-vote compact is a fairly recent proposal.
If enough states joined, members would give all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in all states. Proponents say the method would legally bypass the intense effort needed to amend the Constitution.
A majority of Americans believe the popular vote should dictate who lives in the White House. The Gallup Poll has reported consistent majority support since 1944 for popularly elected presidents. In 2007, The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey Project found that 72 percent of poll respondents favored the idea. The idea was most popular among Democrats (78 percent) and least popular among Republicans (60 percent).
Electoral College critics say it places more value on votes from smaller states, encourages candidates to focus on a handful of swing states, and may even discourage voter turnout. "I don't think we should have an electoral system in which the most important elected official in the country can be chosen, even if he or she does not win the largest number of votes," says Keyssar.
Several studies have indicated campaigns are skewed in favor of battleground states. A study by FairVote found that in 2004, presidential candidates devoted 75 percent of peak-season resources to just five states, while the other 45 states received little attention.
The Electoral College has its supporters, including those who say eliminating it would would lessen rural voters' clout, as candidates focus on gaining votes in densely populated areas.
Ferrel Guillory, director of Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, says he's open to changing the system but isn't sold on the popular-vote compact. "The Electoral College has acted as a kind of ballast for the country for a long time," Guillory says. "Whether it's outmoded or not, I think we need to think more deeply about it."
He continues: "If you went to a total popular vote, then states don't matter as states. A vote in Virginia is the same thing as a vote in North Carolina. You can argue that's the way it should be. But it does take away the building of regional coalitions."
Some critics of the compact have criticized the proposal as simply a Democratic response to the 2000 election. While the compact's national board is bipartisan, the sponsors of related bills in North Carolina have been Democrats. But supporters note that if John Kerry had won enough votes in closely contested Ohio, Kerry could have been elected president even though Bush won the popular vote.
Damon Circosta, director of political programs and operations for Center for Voter Education in Raleigh, says advocacy groups are mulling how hard to push the bill when the short session starts in May.
State Rep. Melanie Wade Goodwin isn't sure the bill will make it out of the House Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee, which she leads. She says some committee members were hesitant last session to change a long-running system that some worried could dilute North Carolina's electoral power.
"The determination to bring it out of committee will not be mine alone," Goodwin says. "Quite honestly, I'm not sure that I have strong feelings on either side at this point. I want to hear how the discussion goes."