Tuesday, January 30, 2007

DENVER — A movement to upend the Electoral College in favor of a popular presidential vote aims to sweep state legislatures this year, starting with Colorado.

The state Senate here last week approved a bill that would award Colorado’s nine electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins a majority of the vote nationally, regardless of how the candidate performs statewide. There’s just one caveat: The legislation only takes effect if states with a combined 270 electoral votes — a majority — approve their own National Popular Vote Interstate Compact bills.

Lofty as that goal may sound, organizers say it’s within reach. Already, 25 states have introduced the legislation and another 20 have it in the drafting stage. Passage in the 11 most-populous states would give the compact an electoral-vote total of 271.

John Koza, the Stanford University professor who masterminded the plan, said the hope is to make presidential elections fairer by ensuring that the candidate who receives the most votes wins.

“Whichever candidate gets the most popular vote, gets the 270 electoral votes from whatever hodgepodge of states pass this,” said Mr. Koza, who serves as vice president of the California-based National Popular Vote. “It actually works, if you think about it.”

The campaign must first exorcise a few demons, starting with the ghost of Al Gore. Any proposed change to the Electoral College is reflexively seen by some Republicans as a Democratic plot to boost the party’s chances. Mr. Gore received 540,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush, but lost the electoral vote.

“Our biggest problem is this knee-jerk reaction,” Mr. Koza said. “People think we’re trying to put Al Gore in the White House, but it’s a little too late. He’s not going to win it by passing this.”

Other critics say they are more concerned about the intent of the Founding Fathers than the political fortunes of Mr. Gore. The proposal’s detractors worry that it would weaken federalism by further encroaching on the rights of states and their role in presidential elections.

“We’re not a collective, amorphous blob, but a confederation of individual states, each retaining some sovereign powers, unique qualities, values and agendas,” said conservative Denver radio talk-show host Mike Rosen in a column. “The Electoral College is a constant reminder of that, intended to apportion votes in such a way as to protect the interests of less-populous states.”

Colorado Senate Republicans agreed, voting unanimously against the legislation. The bill now goes to the House, which is also controlled by Democrats. Because of filing deadlines and other legal issues, the compact could not take effect until the 2012 election.

Despite conservative opposition to the proposal, National Popular Vote officials insist the movement is bipartisan, pointing to its advisory board, which includes a handful of former Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Jake Garn of Utah and Rep. Tom Campbell of California.

Proponents argue that Republicans have as much to fear from the current system as Democrats. If Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had carried Ohio in 2004 — and he came within 119,000 votes or two percentage points — he would have won the election despite losing the popular vote.

In some states, Republicans are actually leading the charge. The New York Assembly bill has five sponsors, all Republicans. The thinking in Albany is that the proposal will give Republican voters in the heavily Democratic state more clout by letting their ballots count in a national tally, instead of being rendered moot by the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system.

There’s also disagreement on how the proposal would affect campaign strategy. Organizers say candidates would be compelled to spread their message nationwide, instead of focusing their time and money on the battleground states. In the 2004 race, the campaigns spent 99 percent of their money and 92 percent of their time in 16 states, according to National Popular Vote figures.

“We deserve to have a national discussion when electing the president, not a discussion in five or 10 states,” said Vermont state Rep. Chris Pearson of the Progressive Party.

But the proposal’s foes argue that it would steer the presidential campaigns toward the more populous states and away from the smaller, rural states. In the Colorado floor debate, state Sen. Shawn Mitchell argued that the bill would make the state’s voters “irrelevant.”

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