Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON – Anticipation of a close, exciting presidential election is mounting, so here’s an election-night scenario that rivals the “hanging chad” madness of 2000 in Florida.
President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are neck-and-neck in the electoral vote count, with Kerry just slightly ahead but each just a few short of the magic number for victory: 270. Bush narrowly wins Colorado, which has nine electoral votes, and that puts him over the top.
Just as the networks are about to declare him the winner, word comes that Colorado voters have adopted Amendment 36, scrapping the winner-take-all system – starting with this election.
The state’s electoral votes are awarded by percentage of the popular vote. So instead of getting all nine votes, Bush gets five, Kerry gets four – and Kerry squeaks in, until the first lawsuit is filed at midnight and armies of lawyers parachute into Denver to battle over the referendum.
“If that amendment passes, and the candidates are in the 265-275 range of electoral votes, it could be a legal nightmare,” predicted Michael Kanner, a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The courts could decide the election.”
Even if the Colorado scenario doesn’t unfold, what if the winner of the electoral vote lost the popular vote? In 2000, Bush took 271 electoral votes, but Al Gore won 540,520 more popular votes.
Some analysts predict it would finally focus attention on an Electoral College system that many see as an 18th-century relic.
“Given the intensity and passion … the side that wins the popular vote and loses the electoral would go ballistic,” said G. Terry Madonna, of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
When Bush took the presidency in 2000 while losing the popular vote, it was the first time the Electoral College time bomb had blown up since 1888. Madonna thinks it’s ticking again.
“I was shocked there was not a real debate about the Electoral College after 2000,” he added. Many analysts say that debate didn’t occur because everyone was preoccupied by the twists and turns of the Florida recount battle.
Every four years, some voters are surprised to learn that they’re electing the president indirectly. The popular-vote winner in each state is entitled to electors, who meet in December to formally elect the president. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already allocate one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, with two votes for the statewide winner.
Each state’s electoral vote total is determined by its representation in Congress: two senators plus members in the House of Representatives. California, the largest state, has 55 electoral votes. The District of Columbia has three.
This year, a close race and the Colorado referendum remind voters of the big issue: is this any way to choose a president? Is the Electoral College a dinosaur worthy of extinction or a good way to protect the influence of smaller states?
Those who favor direct election by popular vote say it’s democratic and simple. They say it’s unfair that the presidential candidates virtually ignore voters in the three biggest states – California, Texas and New York – because the outcome there in the winner-take-all electoral system is a foregone conclusion.
Given the potential role of third parties, some plans for a direct vote call for a runoff if no candidate gets 40 percent in the election.
Polls show that most voters favor a direct, popular vote, in theory at least. Scrapping the Electoral College would require the ratification of three-fourths of the states for a constitutional amendment, and that’s a long way from reality.