- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

Still stung by George Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the Electoral College four years ago, Colorado Democrats have found a way to give John Kerry at least four electoral votes even if he loses the state’s popular vote. Had this new voting system been in place in 2000, it would have been just enough to push Mr. Gore over the top.

As almost everyone knows, presidents are not elected by popular vote in this country. Technically, electors voting in the Electoral College elect them. This year, that vote will occur on Dec. 13 in the various state capitals. The results are transmitted to Congress, where the votes will be formally counted on Jan. 6, 2005. Only then will we know for certain who the next president will be.

A great strength of the Electoral College is that it tends to magnify presidential victories. For example, although Bill Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996, he won comfortably in the Electoral College, which gave him a mandate to govern although he lacked majority support among voters.

The reason is that almost all states have a winner-take-all system for awarding electoral votes. Whoever wins the popular vote gets all the state’s electoral votes — even if he wins by a single vote. A state’s electoral votes equal the total of its congressional seats plus two votes for its senators. (The District of Columbia gets three votes, what it would have if it were a state.) Thus there are 538 total electoral votes and a candidate must get an absolute majority to become president.

Two states, however, have a different system, which the Constitution allows them to adopt by state law. In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are allocated according to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district. The overall winner of the state’s popular vote gets two extra votes.

In Maine, for example, the state has two congressional districts for a total of four electoral votes. If candidate A won the first district and candidate B won the second district, then each would be awarded one electoral vote. Consequently, whichever candidate won the state would get only three votes in total, not four, as would be the case everywhere else except Nebraska, which has the same system.

The proposed Colorado system, which will be on the ballot for voter approval in November, is quite different. It would prorate all the state’s electoral votes on the basis of the popular vote. In practice, this means the loser will always get at least four of Colorado’s nine electoral votes.

To see how this system would have worked in 2000, Mr. Bush won all eight of Colorado’s electoral votes (it received another vote in the 2000 census) and got 271 nationwide, compared to Mr. Gore’s 266. If Mr. Bush had only got five electoral votes in Colorado and Mr. Gore had won the other three, Mr. Gore would have won the election with 269 electoral votes to Mr. Bush’s 268. (The total does not add to 538 because one D.C. elector apparently did not vote.)

Although there are legitimate criticisms to make of the Electoral College, the Colorado effort is nothing but a transparently partisan effort to give Mr. Kerry a couple of extra electoral votes. If the election this year is as close as the polls suggest, that could mean the margin of victory.

The potential closeness of the presidential vote in November raises another issue regarding the Electoral College, which is that the total number of electors is an even number, meaning an equal split of 269 electoral votes for each candidate is possible. In that event, the House of Representatives chooses the president. A simple solution would increase the size of the House by one, creating an odd number of electors.

Close elections also pressure electors to vote contrary to the way they are pledged, which many are allowed to do. In years past, there have been several such “faithless electors,” although none has ever affected the outcome of an election. In 2000, there was an organized effort by some Democrats to pressure Republican electors into changing their votes.

The faithless elector problem is also easily solved. States can require that their electors vote the way they are pledged, which is already the case in 26 states and the District of Columbia. In some cases, it is even a felony for an elector to vote for a different candidate than he is pledged to. A better solution would be to adopt the law in Michigan and North Carolina, which cancel that elector’s vote and replace him.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.


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