llinois leads way in breathing life into Electoral College

By James Foley
Published May 3rd 2007 in Medill News Service
Florida in 2000. Al Gore won the popular vote, and George W. Bush won the Electoral College. We know who became president.

Ohio in 2004. With the shift of a few hundred thousand votes, John Kerry would have carried Ohio and he would have won the Electoral College and, therefore, the presidency. But George W. Bush had 2 million more popular votes nationally.

With those scenarios in mind, if Maryland and a few other small states had a law on the books then that Maryland does now, things would have been different. 

The Electoral College ultimately determines who becomes president, but this oft- maligned system is now targeted by state lawmakers.

The 2008 presidential campaign is already shaping up as one of the longest -- and most wide-open -- in decades. 

Because of the last two elections, people are attempting to change the way the Electoral College works without an outright amendment to the Constitution, which gives us the current system.

“The current system is bad for two reasons -- the popular-vote winner doesn’t always win, and it only matters how certain battleground states vote,” said lobbyist Dan Johnson-Weinberger, president of Progressive Public Affairs, who supports the change.

“Most people think it’s stupid that the majority can vote for one candidate and he loses”

The fact that blue staters see red and red staters get blue in the face is because voters in states that typically lean heavily one way politically are written off by the candidates.

Illinois, which has trended blue, is seen as already in the Democrats' pocket and insurmountable by Republicans, denying voters the opportunity to see and hear candidates and denying businesses the revenue that these campaigns generate.

Change may be on the horizon.

On Wednesday, a bill was approved 65-50 in the Illinois House that directs presidential electors from Illinois -- the 21 people in the state who actually vote for president -- to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote.

Under the U.S. Constitution, electors are to vote for the candidate who carries the popular vote within each individual state.

The bill will go to the Illinois Senate next week, where it might come to a vote as soon as the middle of May. It would then go to the governor. 

If history is any indication, the bill -- if it makes it to the governor's desk -- will find itself in friendly territory.

When Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a member of Congress he supported a move to reform the Electoral College. 

According to a site that tracks the move to reform the Electoral College, Illinois was the first state in which the National Popular Vote bill was introduced.  In addition to Maryland, the bill has passed the Hawaii House and Senate, the Colorado Senate and the Arkansas House. 

The bill currently has 305 legislative sponsors in 47 states. 

In Illinois, state Rep. Bob Molaro, the Chicago Democrat who introduced the bill, said, “All the money is being spent in Iowa and Florida. This puts us back in play. With this bill, how much you win or lose by matters.”

“It makes sense to me,” Molaro said. “Whoever gets the most votes [in Illinois], even if it’s only 30 percent [nationally], they get all our electoral votes.”

But as with many good intentions to change the political system, there could be a host of unintended consequences. 

The spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections said such a change could bypass rural states in favor of cities and the mega markets in which the concentration of votes are found.

“There are longstanding questions about adequate representation, about adequate representation of rural states,” said Jim Allen, the spokesman. “And it would become a campaign strategy issue: How more expensive would races be?"

Illinois state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard (R-Hinsdale), a chief co-sponsor of the bill who also happens to be chairman of the DuPage County Republican Party, said he likes the bill's chances.

"I think the bill is good for both political parties in Illinois since we've been neglected by national presidential candidates of both parties," Dillard said. "We're pioneering changes in the Electoral College because we've been ignored and there's more heightened attention since Sens. Clinton and Obama are from the area."

Dillard, however, doesn't see it as being about political parties. "I believe this change doesn't help either party, it helps the American public's interest.  Americans never quite get the Electoral College. It makes the public feel their vote doesn't count."

"For some reason Republicans are reluctant on a grand scale to subscribe to the direct popular vote," Dillard said. 

"I'm not wedded to this particular methodology but I believe this is better for Illinois.

Dillard counters Allen's point about rural areas losing out under the bill: "I've studied a myth among some Republicans that this empowers cities. The statistics do not bear that out. It's hard to explain to my children why the person with the highest vote doesn't get to be president."

"With all due to respect to the forefathers of our country, they never thought about televison or exit polling by national media outlets. The American generations of today" -- because of Bush-Gore -- "have a skepticism about the Electoral College."