Panel discussion at playhouse considers popular vote
WESTPORT — With seats filled and the back wall of the theater lined with spectators, residents heard what a states’ agreement to elect the national popular vote winner as president means.
During a panel discussion March 2 at the Westport Country Playhouse, two panelists argued support and a third cautioned concern as the experts fielded audience questions and debated the compact.
“The only role that I could see that the Electoral College performs now is to occasionally make the candidate who comes in second rather than first president,” panelist and New Yorker staff writer Hendrik Hertzberg said to chuckles and scattered applause. A proponent of the national popular vote and states’ agreement, Hertzberg believes electing the nation’s top office by popular vote is “more of a when than an if.”
Connecticut’s entry into the compact — potentially adding its seven Electoral College votes to the 165 in place from 11 states that have made the compact law — is currently the subject of a bill under consideration by the General Assembly’s Government Administration & Elections Committee. The GAE held a hearing in Hartford two weeks ago, where support split mostly along party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans wary.
The movement to enact the popular vote within the confines of the Electoral College — avoiding a constitutional amendment — gained renewed traction following the most recent presidential election. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would go into effect if enough states passed laws entering the agreement to surpass the 270 Electoral College votes needed to deliver the presidency.
Mark Albertson, a panelist and Connecticut-based historian, opened the discussion, noting that in five elections the victor has not won the majority of voters’ ballots. He described the United States as founded as a republic rather than democracy and that the nation’s founders did not trust the “common man.”
States that have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
Each state listed with its electoral votes, tallying 165 total
New York, 29
New Jersey, 14
Rhode Island, 4
Washington, D.C., 3
Hertzberg then offered detail on the proposed compact.
“It’s not terribly complicated or radical and, yes, it’s hard to change the Constitution, but there’s no reason to change the Constitution over this,” he said, explaining the change could be more easily undone though he believes the country will like and stick with the popular vote.
Hertzberg characterized the Electoral College as rendering irrelevant three-quarters to four-fifths of the country, resulting in presidential general election campaigns skipping most voters, who live in predictably red or blue states.
But if the popular vote were in use, “grassroots politics would then be doable, would be worth doing everywhere in America,” Hertzberg said.
But the night’s critic, Luther Weeks, objected not to the concept of the popular vote but to instituting it through an interstate compact, cautioning he believed problems could arise if the popular vote is retrofit into the Electoral College system.
Weeks, Executive Director of CT Voters Count, referenced knowledge of the procedural details of how elections are run and his computer science background in citing his concerns. He is a retired computer scientist who has served as an advocate on voting integrity issues and organizes citizen volunteers for Connecticut’s post-election audits.
“We’ve got a system,” he said, “and we’ve got laws built for the Electoral College.”
He expressed concern that logistical elements of the electoral system, including timing and recount procedures, could make a final, trustworthy popular vote to base electoral votes on an elusive goal. Weeks said he would be in favor of a “sufficient” constitutional amendment with national laws built for the popular vote. The two other panelists and moderator dismissed many of his concerns.
The crowd peppered the panelists with questions and clarifications from the discussion’s start, looking to understand the intricacies of the compact and popular vote or challenging the panelists.
In response to one man’s question, Hertzberg detailed why he believes the system Nebraska and Maine use — where two electoral votes go to the states’ popular vote winner and remaining votes are distributed by congressional district — would, he believes, be worse than the status quo.
Few congressional districts are contested, he explained, so most areas would be spectator districts with far fewer small pockets of battleground districts.
“We’d actually be worse off than we were before,” he said, later adding, “It would import gerrymandering into the presidential election.”
To date, only blue states have passed the compact and support has trended Democrat. The previous two popular vote winners who lost the electoral vote — Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — were both Democrats, though Hertzberg said there is no reason for the issue to be partisan and Republicans could have easily suffered the same fates. A red state will need to pass the compact to reach the 270-vote threshold, he said.
National Popular Vote Connecticut, a citizen movement in favor of the compact, and the League of Women Voters of Westport, a nonpartisan group that has supported popular vote initiatives, co-hosted the Thursday night panel, “The State of Voting: CT Debates a New Way to Elect the President.” Jonathan Perloe, a Greenwich resident, and National Popular Vote Connecticut volunteer, said in an interview the group is organizing upcoming discussions in other nearby towns and a rally in New Haven.
He hoped community members would leave the discussion and think about simple questions: Should every vote count? Should the election’s majority winner be president?
“I hope they keep an open mind,” Perloe said as the theater emptied.