Rhode Island used to be known for its independence and spunk. It was the first American colony to renounce its allegiance to the British Crown. It refused to send delegates the Constitutional Convention and (stubborn to the end!) did not ratify the U.S. Constitution until after George Washington had already been elected and sworn in as the country’s first President. Perhaps fittingly, the colony that many early Americans called “Rogue’s Island” was the last state to join the Union.
Sadly, this independent-minded state is on the verge of happily and peacefully blending into the masses.
Last week, a Rhode Island House committee approved a measure that could lead to effective elimination of the Electoral College. This National Popular Vote compact would require Rhode Island to award its presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, eight states plus the District of Columbia have approved the legislation. NPV’s compact goes into effect when states holding 270 electors (enough to win an election) have agreed to its terms.
The bill may now be on a fast track in Rhode Island. NPV has already been scheduled for consideration by the full House on Wednesday, April 11. If it passes the House, then Rhode Island’s acceptance of NPV’s anti-Electoral College compact is a near certainty: The Senate has expressed its enthusiasm for the bill early and often, approving it in three prior sessions (2008, 2009, 2011).
Rhode Island legislators have been told that the direct election system advocated by NPV will amplify its voice in presidential elections. The advice they are being given is faulty. But the irony of the situation is even more glaring.
Rhode Island, the smallest state, is taking the advice of a group founded and headquartered in the nation’s largest state, California. It is hard to imagine Rhode Islanders in the late 1700s taking advice from any other state, much less a large state. If Rhode Island had bothered to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, one has to imagine that its delegates would have agreed with the sentiments of those small state delegates who remained distrustful of the large states. In one stunning speech, Gunning Bedford of Delaware went so far as to declare to the large state delegates: “I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?
Such distrust led directly to constitutional institutions such as the Electoral College. Rhode Island would be well advised to follow Bedford’s advice.
NPV’s solution will lead to the destruction of the feisty small state independence that has been so long valued in Rhode Island.
UPDATE: Good news! The vote on the bill has been delayed until May 1.
Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.