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Is it time to do away with the undemocratic Electoral-College system?

ASK THIS | July 18, 2006

Advocates of electing the president through a direct, popular vote have come up with an ingenious way of doing so without a constitutional amendment – and they may be marching on a statehouse near you.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

Q. What are the weaknesses of the current system?

Q. Why hasn’t it been changed up until now?

Q. What is the National Popular Vote project and how would it work?

The system of electors was created by the founding fathers, who distrusted the people to directly elect the president. Article Two of the Constitution states, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the States may be entitled in the Congress.”

Electoral votes are awarded on a “winner-take-all” principle in every state except in Maine and Nebraska, where the winner of the state gets two electoral votes, and the rest are distributed according to who won each individual congressional district. No state divides its votes proportionally based on the popular vote and a ballot initiative to do so in Colorado failed in 2004.

There have been several attempts to eliminate the Electoral College. Some went quite a ways. As Alexander Keyssar, a history professor at Harvard University, wrote in a 2004 Boston Globe article, the House of Representatives passed an amendment in 1969, backed by President Richard Nixon, to directly elect the president. But the amendment was blocked in the Senate, in part by Southern senators who opposed any changes they saw as diluting states rights.  (As it happens, in the pre-Civil War era, the Electoral College system inflated the influence of whites in Southern states by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of determining the size of the congressional delegation – while not allowing them to vote, of course.)

On a mathematical level, the current system discriminates against large states. Since each state has two senators, small states are overrepresented in the Electoral College.  But practically speaking, what the system has done is concentrate presidential elections on just a handful of “swing” or “battleground” states, while leaving the rest of the nation's voters on the sidelines.

And there’s the biggest problem: The system can end up putting in office someone who lost the popular vote, which is just plain undemocratic. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and, of course, 2000.

With the 2008 presidential elections around the corner, a bipartisan effort is underway to reform the system so that the loser of a popular vote never again becomes president. The National Popular Vote project advocates an “interstate compact” by which states would pledge to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. State legislatures in California and Colorado have approved the proposal, getting them partway to passage, and proponents hope to repeat their success in the rest of the country. The proposal would only come into effect when states representing 270 electoral votes sign on, assuring the presidency for the winner of the popular vote. The proposal is the brainchild of computer scientist John Koza, a Stanford professor who invented the scratch-off lottery ticket. It is being championed by former independent presidential candidate John Anderson and former Democratic Senator Birch Bayh. The New York Times, which endorsed the proposal this March has called it “an ingenious solution that would not require a constitutional amendment.” In order to do away with the Electoral College altogether, an amendment to the constitution needs to be passed by a 2/3 majority in Congress and approved by 3/4ths of the states, something that has been done only 17 times since 1791.

There have been hundreds of failed proposals in Congress to change the Electoral College, and the National Popular Vote may turn out to be one of them. The two major parties may oppose it because of fears that it will encourage third party candidates. Voters may not be thrilled about their state’s electoral votes being committed to the national winner if they voted for the loser. Even if passed, there is the fear that the interstate compact will land in the courts and be declared unconstitutional. Those who want to preserve the status quo argue that the strength of the current system is that candidates are forced to campaign throughout the country and would otherwise just stick to New York and California. Other reformers favor dividing the electoral votes proportionally by state, based on the popular vote. Still others believe that anything short of abolishing the Electoral College is an imperfect fix of a broken system.

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