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An End Run on the Electoral College

• August 03, 2010 • 11:35 AM

The system used to elect presidents of the United States is pretty bizarre, and six states so far are bucking Electoral College tradition to improve it.

The Massachusetts state Legislature last week passed a law designed to circumvent what many consider the dysfunction of the Electoral College. Under the bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, whether that candidate also wins the local vote in Massachusetts or not.

The bill has a clever trigger mechanism — it would only go into effect if a majority of states (representing 270 electoral votes) adopt identical laws. No sane state would want to go this alone, in essence sacrificing its residents’ votes to make a point about true democracy.

The bill’s backers — who seem pleased they’ve come up with a legal alternative to dismantling the Electoral College by constitutional amendment — are slowly on their way. If Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signs the law, his state will become the sixth (spanning 73 electoral votes) to line up for the experiment.

Some Republican leaders in the Bay State have cried foul. And the idea does suffer from a mild ideological tinge, if only because it recalls Democrats’ bitter disappointment in the 2000 election. (So far all of the backers have been blue states.)

But according to the bill’s grandfather, a doctorate in computer science with an expertise in genetic programming, this idea is less about who wins on Election Day than what occurs before then. Sure, John Koza says, it’s problematic that the American system periodically puts second-place candidates in the White House (and he’s not just talking about George W. Bush — this has happened in four of 56 presidential elections).
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The bigger problem, he says, is that our existing system encourages candidates to ignore entire swaths of the country. And polling suggests both Democrats and Republicans agree with this.

“What struck us in the 2004 election was how extreme the concentration on the battleground states had become,” Koza said. In the last six elections, and particularly the last three, he’s watched candidates hold two-thirds of their campaign stops and spend two-thirds of their money in as few as six states.

In any given election, he adds, 98 percent of campaign money is spent in 15 or 16 states, leaving the vast majority of the country — and its concerns — out of the game.

“Of course, candidates concentrate on those states during the election,” he said. “Then they get elected and they’re thinking of re-election, and they concentrate on those same states while they’re governing.”

Koza wants to change this via interstate compact. States have the exclusive power to decide how to award their delegates to the Electoral College. Nothing in the Constitution requires them to use the winner-take-all formula that has become the norm. And so changing that formula would not require a constitutional amendment, as many people assume.

“I thought that, too, and I lost a bet when I was in college, a very embarrassing bet to a pre-law student,” Koza said. “The winner-take-all system, not only is it not in the Constitution, but it was only used by three state in the first election. So it was not the choice of the founders.”

Koza, then, dismisses the most common objection to his plan — that somehow, this seems like a sneaky subversion of the Constitution. (The idea could, however, be subject to litigation on the finer points of congressional approval of interstate compacts.) He also frequently hears fears that his system would undermine federalism, the balance of power between the states and the federal government.

“A state is no weaker or stronger if they count votes one way versus another,” he said. Besides, the states would retain the right to change their systems at any time – as Massachusetts, for one, has done throughout its history.

Most unnerving, though, is the prospect that voters in Massachusetts, for example, could wind up overwhelmingly supporting one candidate, only to have their state’s entire electoral trove awarded to the other guy. Such scenarios, even if rare, may only bolster the popular gripe that “my vote doesn’t count.”

“The opposition tries to make an issue of that,” Koza said. “The truth is that’s the entire point of the bill — to get away from the state-by-state outcome controlling the White House. If you want candidates to treat every vote equally around the country, if you want them to campaign around the country, then you need a national popular vote.”

Think of it this way, he adds: Do you care how your county voted for governor, or do you just care if your candidate won the office?

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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