College in the spotlight, again
Dallas Morning News
- Electoral College critics are on a Rocky Mountain high.
Colorado will decide Nov. 2 whether to change the way it allocates
electoral votes, a referendum that could win the presidency for
George W. Bush or John Kerry - and revive controversy over what
activist Rob Richie calls "an accident waiting to happen,"
the Electoral College."
"If Colorado helps us get a national debate going, that's all
to the good," said Richie, executive director of the
Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy, which supports
direct popular elections for presidents.
Other Electoral College disputes are in the offing; a Republican
elector from West Virginia has talked about voting against President
Bush even if he carries the Mountaineer State.
Yet despite all the grumbling - and the fact that voters dislike the
Electoral College, according to polls - the chances of eliminating
the Electoral College are slim. After all, political analysts said,
the movement made little headway even after George W. Bush's
minority win four years ago.
"Once you have any electoral system changing, it hurts some
people," said Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and
social policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"Those people tend to howl."
Small states like the Electoral College because it gives them a say
in electing the president, analysts said. Big states that lean
Republican or Democratic, such as Texas or California, would be
loath to change a system that benefits the party in power.
That's because in almost every state, the candidate who wins
statewide, no matter how small the margin, gets all of the electoral
votes - the provision under challenge in Colorado.
Under the proposed referendum, Colorado's 9 electoral votes would be
allocated in proportion to a candidate's voting percentage, likely
meaning a 5-4 split for the Bush-Kerry winner.
If approved, the change would take place immediately. That could
change the outcome of a close Bush-Kerry race, probably inviting a
lawsuit from the loser. Such a change in Colorado four years ago
would have put Al Gore in the White House.
Backers are hopeful, saying their move would allow every Coloradoans
vote to count. But analysts said the referendum is far from a sure
Opponents say it would hurt the state in the long run, because
unlike this year, future presidential candidates would avoid
Colorado altogether, given that all but the most dominating victory
would result in a 5-4 electoral split.
That echoes one of the many complaints about the Electoral College:
It narrows the playing field for candidates, as more than two-thirds
of the states seem safely in one column or the other.
Tens of millions of voters in "red" or "blue"
states like Texas, California and New York receive little attention
from the candidates. Instead, the campaign is hyper-focused on no
more than a dozen "battleground states," including such
small states as New Hampshire, New Mexico and Iowa, and the number
is likely to shrink by Election Day.
"There are so many states out of play now," said Mark
Rozell, a George Mason University public policy professor who is
re-thinking his support of the Electoral College. "So many
people live in states where there is essentially no presidential
election going on."
Whether Colorado changes its system or not, the basic protest of the
system remains: The people of the United States don't actually elect
That distinction belongs to the Electoral College, one of the many
compromises behind the U.S. Constitution. Some framers wanted direct
elections, but others feared the masses; some proposed that Congress
make the pick, but others did not want the executive to become a
tool of the legislature.
The result: A system in which voters - mostly white, property-owning
males back in those days - selected a slate of electors, who in turn
picked the president.
"They were punting," said Keyssar, who has called the
Electoral College "America's most peculiar political
Electoral votes are awarded to states based on their population, and
the distribution changes with every census to reflect population
gains. Bush won in 2000 with 271 electoral votes; this year, he
would get 278 by carrying the exact same states this time around.
Some founders saw the Electoral College as a kind of nominating
convention, offering up many candidates, none of whom could win a
majority. In that case, the U.S. House picks the president.
Yet the predominance of two political parties made Electoral College
majorities the norm; the House hasn't been involved in a
presidential election since 1824.
It is more likely, analysts said, that the Electoral College will
favor a candidate who got fewer votes. That's happened with four
presidents: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876,
Benjamin Harrison in 1888 - and Bush in 2000.
Efforts to abolish the nation's least popular college in one sweep
face a significant hurdle, analysts said - an amendment to the
Constitution, which would need approval by three-fourths of the
states. Several analysts said too many states have a vested interest
in retaining the Electoral College.
Reformers have higher hopes that individual states will change, such
as the Colorado effort. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already have
different systems, awarding an electoral vote to a candidate that
carries a congressional district even if he lost statewide.
Some fear that a patchwork system in which different states allocate
electors in different ways would only reward the bigger states that
retain a winner-take-all system.
Allocating electoral votes based on percentage of popular voter also
draws another objection: Strong third-party candidates, such as Ross
Perot in 1992, could pick off enough electors to prevent a majority
and throw the decision to the House. Theoretically, Perot's 19
percent showing would have given him at least 100 electoral votes,
denying Bill Clinton a majority.
Popular elections might also encourage a proliferation of
candidates, further undermining the party system and making it less
likely anyone can win a majority. "It's better than the
possible alternatives," said Walter Berns, a resident scholar
with the American Enterprise Institute. "What are the
alternatives? That's the question."
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