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Briefing and Opinion
October 29, 2004

Electoral Guinea Pig

Angry voters, hanging chads and the mother of all supreme court battles -- if you thought that Florida was a mess in 2000, watch out for what could happen in Colorado this year. Our report is from correspondent Rick Karr.

Bill Owens

"We'll have the same State Supreme Court verses Federal Supreme Court possibility, very similar to Florida" says Colorado Governor Bill Owens. "We might have those two courts disagreeing with one another once again."

This year, Coloradoans will cast two votes that could determine who sits in the White House, in addition to their vote for president, they'll decide whether to change the state constitution.

On Election Day, Colorado voters are going to be making a decision about a constitutional amendment that would change the way the state assigns its votes in the Electoral College. Will they stick with the old system, under which all nine of those votes go to whichever candidate gets the most popular votes? Or will they divide those nine votes proportionally based on the popular vote?

Ron Tupa The ballot measure is known as "Amendment 36." Its supporters say it's all about fairness. "In a winner take all system, the only votes that are counted are the votes for the winner," says Ron Tupa, Outreach Director of Make Your Vote Count. "Amendment 36 would change that to make sure that every person's vote is counted. It kind of guarantees the principle of one person one vote."

If Amendment 36 becomes law -- and the presidential vote in Colorado is close -- the winning candidate would get five electoral votes, the loser, four. That means just one vote is up for grabs. Governor Bill Owens says that means Colorado would lose bargaining power in Washington.

"If you're a state where it's a close call between closing a military base in Colorado with the one electoral vote versus Arizona with nine or ten -- all things being equal, I think some administrations might choose the state that had the electoral votes," says Owens.

Alexander Keyssar
"If Florida in 2000 had been on a proportional system -- it takes 100,000 votes per elector to switch," says Rick Ridder, campaign manager of Make Your Vote Count. "So you wouldn't have had this problem with chads."

The Colorado debate is the latest round in a fight that's been going on since the founders sat down to draft the constitution. The founders had widely divergent views about democracy, says Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at Harvard University. "For most, in fact, the word democracy was a disparaging word. It was a negative word. They used the term republic."

founding fathers

They created the Electoral College to serve as a buffer against mob rule. The Constitution lets each state's legislature decide how its electors should vote. Early on, some electors voted for whomever they wanted, but by the 1830s, each state's dominant political party had forced electors to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote. that "winner-take-all" system has prompted hundreds of attempts at reform.

If Colorado's Amendment 36 had been on the books in the last presidential election, George W. Bush -- who won just over half of Colorado's popular vote -- would have lost three electoral votes to Al Gore -- enough to put Gore in the lead.

What If
What's more, most proposals to change the Electoral College would make it easier for third parties to play a bigger role in presidential politics. "Ross Perot, for example, in 1992 would have won a lot of electoral votes with 19 percent of the vote," says Andrew Busch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "He didn't win any states so he actually got zero under the current system."

In other words, we would have a situation in which a candidate, like a Ross Perot, would be able to be a king maker, of sorts by throwing his electoral votes to someone. "You're talking about the possibility of putting a lot of power and a lot of leverage into the hands of folks who are getting ten, or 15, or 20 percent of the vote," says Busch.

Before a single vote on Colorado's amendment 36 has been counted, a Fort Collins voter has asked a federal judge to rule it unconstitutional. The problem, according to the suit, is that voters can't be sure whether it'll affect the way thir year's electoral votes will be counted.

"Is it somehow unfair to go into the polling booth on Election Day and not know whether say, your vote for Nader is going to count for nothing or could potentially mean a single electoral vote," says Richard Hasen, professor of law at Loyola Law School.

Even some opponents of Amendment 36 say they might be in favor of changing the Electoral College system. "If there's a national debate, and a national decision, that would be not nearly as onerous as having Colorado as a guinea pig, go first, and then look around to see if anybody else is following," says Governor Bill Owens.

Bill Owens
Harvard's Alexander Keyssar says the nation needs to confront -- once again -- the question of whether the U.S. is a republic or a democracy. "The country right now pretty universally subscribes to the notion that we are a democracy and that all votes should count equally," he says. "The Electoral College violates that principle."

For additional information:

Yes on Amendment 36 website
No on Amendment 36 website