States Consider Toying With Electoral College

Critics of a ballot initiative that would retroactively transform the way the state distributes its electoral votes in the presidential election say they worry Colorado could mimic another infamous state in the 2000 election.

"We don’t want Colorado to be the Florida of 2004," said Kate Atkinson, spokeswoman for a group called Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea (search), which is fighting a ballot initiative that would change Colorado’s "winner-take-all" electoral college vote distribution to a system in which presidential candidates would get a share of the state’s nine electoral votes in proportion to their take of the popular vote.

If it passes, the new rule would apply to the 2004 election, and in a close race like 2000, it might mean all the difference to the national outcome of the race.

The initiative's impact on the national election would almost immediately lead to a court battle over the new law’s constitutionality, said Bill Whalen, political expert with the Hoover Institution (search) at Stanford University. "It wouldn’t be quite as controversial as hanging chads, but it would be a frustration."

Supporters of the initiative say Coloradans have an opportunity to break the ice on an issue that has bugged many Americans, particularly since 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college vote to George W. Bush.

In 2000, Bush won all of Colorado’s eight electors — but supporters of the initiative say if they were distributed proportionately, Gore would have received three of them and he would be president right now. Bush won the electoral college race 271-266.

After reapportionment, Colorado will have nine electors in this year's election.

"We think the current way we elect the president is highly problematic," said Rob Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (search), which supports the Colorado initiative, as well as electoral reform nationally.

"It has completely distorted the way candidates allocate their attention and resources," he added. "Right now, if you are not living in the 15 close states, the people are not being pushed to vote."

Currently, each state has electors for each senator and each congressional district. The electors are pledged to cast a vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the state — thus, "winner take all."

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that don’t heed this system. Instead, the two Senate electors go to the winner of the popular vote, and the remainder of the electors — two for Maine, three for Nebraska — is distributed to the winners of each congressional district.

Amendment 36 to the Colorado Constitution would dole out this year’s electors based on the percentage of the vote each candidate receives. For example, if President Bush were to get 60 percent to Sen. John Kerry’s 40 percent in the upcoming election, they might split the electors 5 to 4.

"My feeling is, it is certainly more democratic than the system that exists today," said Bernard Perlstein, editor for, an online news magazine that has written about the issue.

So far, the polls for the initiative show a majority in favor of it. Opponents say most voters are still undecided, and that works in their favor.

"It would embarrass Colorado surely," said David Harsanyi, a columnist with the Denver Post, who said the Democratic initiators of Amendment 36 came from out of town and have targeted Colorado in part because of the tight race between Bush and Kerry there.

The Make Your Vote Count (search) effort is run in part by Rick Ridder, a Denver consultant who worked on former presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign, and a longtime Democratic operative. He said that Republicans made up more than 20 percent of the validated 67,829 local signatures collected to get the measure on the ballot.

Republicans, on the other hand, started Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea, with the full support of Republican Gov. Bill Owens (search). Atkinson said they have since taken on many Democratic sympathizers.

Opponents say that because of the historical makeup of voters in the state, the electors would rarely fall outside the 4-4 split, leaving one electoral vote up for grabs.

While proponents concede that the split does not make it any more likely the state would be even more competitive to presidential candidates, they do say it could be a bellwether for other states that are generally not as competitive but who have large pockets of supporters for each of the candidates. New York and California, for example, traditionally go for the Democratic candidate, but parts of the states are quite conservative and generally vote Republican. With large electoral colleges, 55 and 31 votes respectively, that could mean a large change in the number of electoral votes handed out, and more attention paid to the now-neglected states.

Likewise for Texas, with 34 votes and a generally Republican outlook modulated by sections of Democratic voters.

"My concern is leaving states out of the process," said Whalen. "We have ‘flyover states’ already."

But Julie Brown, campaign director for the Make Your Vote Count, said the argument for more frequent stops by the candidates is a paper tiger. "It begs the question on which is more important — a two-hour presidential stop at a tarmac at Denver International Airport or true representation by the voters."

Officials from Nebraska and Maine say they have seen very little difference in the way they are treated by the candidates. Maine, which changed its system in 1972, has been considered a battleground state in this campaign, with Democrats and Republicans alike sending their big guns there to campaign. In fact, this might be the first year since the law was passed that the congressional electors might split their vote.

Bush and his wife, Laura, have both attended rallies in Maine's 2nd District. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards has visited twice, and his wife, Elizabeth, planned to be in the 2nd District on Wednesday.

In Nebraska, which switched in 1994, Secretary of State John Gale said Republicans have been campaigning more in the district this year, knowing there is a popular Democratic effort afoot to take over an open seat in the 1st District.

"In a state so dominated by Republicans, Democrats can feel withered on the vine," Gale told "At the local level, [our system] has invigorated Democrats. I think it makes a difference."