BISMARCK, North Dakota – A movement to prevent a repeat of the 2000 presidential election when Democrat Al Gore lost despite getting more votes nationwide than George W. Bush, is making some headway in states large and small.
The National Popular Vote movement is asking states to change their laws to award their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally.
In presidential elections, the American people are not voting directly for a candidate. Instead, under a system created by the founding fathers of the United States out of a fear of mob rule, voters choose slates of "electors," who in most cases are expected to cast their ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.
Each state has one elector for every member it has in the House and Senate, a formula that gives small states a somewhat larger vote than population alone would dictate.
A bill to award the electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally was introduced last week in the North Dakota Legislature, even though it could reduce the political influence of small states like North Dakota.
"Its strength is, it is what the people want," said one of the sponsors, Rep. Duane DeKrey, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "It kind of takes out that system where the person who gets the most votes doesn't necessarily win."
John Koza, a Stanford University professor who is one of the idea's principal advocates, said lawmakers in 47 states have agreed to sponsor the plan this year. It was introduced last year in Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, New York and California, where the Legislature approved the measure only to have Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger veto it.
Backers say it would help bring a national focus to presidential campaigns.
Koza said the current system encourages parties to focus on a few contested "battleground" states — Ohio and Florida, in recent years — and exaggerates the significance of issues important to those states.
"Why is the rest of the country interested in Cuba? It's a couple of million people, we don't trade with them, and it's certainly been no military threat for 40 years," Koza said. The reason, he said, is that Florida is a battleground state.
There have been other attempts to change the Electoral College system, but all of them foundered. They were aimed at amending the Constitution, an often drawn-out process that requires approval by Congress and ratification by at least 38 states.
This plan would be accomplished instead through an agreement among the states. It would not take effect unless adopted by state legislatures representing a majority of electoral votes.
Robert Hardaway, a University of Denver law professor and Electoral College expert, warned that the proposed interstate compact may need approval from Congress to be legal. In any case, it is "a terrible idea," Hardaway said.
In a close presidential election, recounts would be demanded "in every precinct, every hamlet in the United States," he said. "The practical problems are absolutely enormous."
Lloyd Omdahl, a former University of North Dakota political science professor, state tax commissioner and Democratic lieutenant governor, called the measure ingenious. But he was skeptical the Republican-controlled Legislature would embrace it.
"Republicans in North Dakota would see no benefit from this, because they almost always get the electoral votes," Omdahl said.
Had the compact been in force in 2000, North Dakota's three electors would have had to support Gore, even though Bush carried the state with 63 percent. Since 1900, only three Democratic presidential candidates have carried North Dakota — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, in 1964.
Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor and director of the school's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, warned the proposal would reduce the influence of small states and lead candidates to spend more time campaigning in voter-rich California, New York and Texas.
However, Jacobs said dissatisfaction with the Electoral College system is growing, even in states that may benefit from the current setup.
A lot of Americans "don't like the Electoral College system. They find it to be out of step with expectations about democracy, expectations that our founding fathers did not necessarily share," he said.
"I think time has seen an evolution of a different way of seeing things, a different norm, in which we expect the president to be popularly elected."