One after another, legislators and activists rose and tore away at one of the cornerstones of the Constitution-the Electoral College. Before a crowded State House hearing room, they assailed its undemocratic nature, its origins in slavery and the way it concentrates money and attention in a handful of battleground states, to the exclusion of the rest of the country’s votes.

Most damning of all, perhaps, was the complaint that it confuses kids.

“As an advocate and an activist, I’ve tried to explain to my children, from an early age, how democracy and citizenship work,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG. “I cannot explain to them how the Electoral College works. It makes no sense. I can’t explain it. ‘Oh, they go to college?’ No … There should be a system that makes more sense to people. If we can’t explain it to our kids, it might be time to change the system.”

“I remember learning about the Electoral College in class,” added state Rep. Garrett Bradley, co-chair of the legislature’s committee on election laws, while thumbing through a pocket copy of the Constitution. “I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now. It’s telling that most people don’t understand why the person with the most votes doesn’t win. I can’t explain it, and I’ve got three kids. How do you explain it?”

The overwhelming consensus from last week’s hearing was that nobody should have to explain it. And maybe-in as soon as five years, possibly-nobody will have to. Last Wednesday, Bradley’s committee heard testimony on no less than four separate bills that would have Massachusetts join the National Popular Vote campaign, a movement seeking to unite the states in a binding compact to award their Electoral College votes to whichever presidential candidate receives a plurality of votes, regardless of the vote tally in each individual state. Under such a system, Al Gore would’ve been elected president in 2000, though in 2004, Massachusetts’s Electoral College votes would’ve gone to popular vote winner George W. Bush.

Advocates testified (and Bradley confirmed, with an assist from that pocket-sized Constitution) that the Constitution reserves for the states the right to award their presidential Electors in any way their legislatures see fit. The Constitution also allows states to enter into binding multistate compacts. The National Popular Vote campaign seeks to take advantage of these lapses in federalism by making an end-run around the lengthy, difficult process of amending the Constitution and forging a compact in which a majority of states’ electors (270 votes) agree to honor the nationwide popular vote tally. The agreement wouldn’t take effect until the states in the agreement had enough votes to control the Electoral College. Maryland has already passed the bill, and Barry Fadem, president of the National Popular Vote campaign, said his group is close in Illinois and New Jersey. He believes that, by the end of 2008, he could have 125 of 270 votes needed.

“People like to look at the TV and see their vote in that total,” Fadem said, arguing that the Electoral College depresses voter turnout in the majority of states, which are safe for one party or another. “We want them to see that it really did count.”

In addition to the National Popular Vote legislation, the election committee also reviewed bills by state Sen. Richard Tisei, and state Reps. Robert Koczera and Antonio Cabral, who have proposed awarding Electoral College votes along congressional district lines. Koczera said his bill would help the Electoral College “better parallel the will of the voters,” and all three bills are similar to a high-profile Republican-funded ballot question campaign in California to end the winner-take-all system and award electors along congressional district lines. But, rather than making voters’ votes count more, such efforts would likely have the opposite effect: They would reinforce the effects of gerrymandering, which has made fewer than 50 of the nation’s 455 congressional districts competitive.

“Everything’s in Florida, Iowa and Ohio, and the rest of us are couch potatoes,” complained Jamie Raskin, a constitutional scholar and Maryland state senator who helped steer the popular vote legislation through his legislature. “The basic, beautiful principle of democracy is popular sovereignty. The president should speak to the American people, not look at a map and say, ‘Let’s forget about the Northeast, or the South.’ This is the future of American political democracy.”

Raskin also argued that the Electoral College piggybacked, in part, off the same politics that helped shape the Senate and the three-fifths compromise. “It was closely wrapped up in the politics of slavery,” he said. Noting that 8 of the country’s first 10 presidents were slave owners, he added, “and it worked like a dream.”

“It’s interesting to hear people speak to the foundation of the Electoral College, because slavery had a lot to do with the policies of this country for a very long time,” said James Cofield, treasurer of the Black Political Task Force. “Voting rights are at the very foundation of a true democracy, and one citizen/one vote should be the principle that guides us. The Electoral College deviates from the principles of a true democracy. It’s outdated, unnecessary and unfair.”