BRIEFING AND OPINION
PAUL GIGOT: Think of it this way, if you live in California or New York
or Montana or Texas or about 20 other states you may have heard about all of the
commercials for Bush and Kerry but you probably have not seen many. That's
because everyone knows how people in your state are going to vote and why spend
money on commercials if all of your state's electoral votes are going to go to
the winner under the winner take all system of the Electoral College.
So if for example you're one of the more five million people who will
probably vote for Bush in California your vote will probably not mean very much
if anything. The state's electoral votes are all going to John Kerry.
Periodically there are calls for reform of the Electoral College system and
it's actually on the ballot next week in Colorado. Our report is from
correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: 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.
GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: We'll have the state Supreme Court versus federal
Supreme Court possibility. Very similar to Florida we might have those two
courts disagreeing with one another once again.
RICK KARR: 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 deciding on 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 candidates get the most popular votes or
will they divide those nine votes proportionally based on the popular vote?
The ballot measure is known as Amendment 36. it's supporters say it's
all about fairness.
RON TUPA, outreach director, Make Your Vote Count: In a winner take all system the only votes that are counted are
the votes for the winner. Amendment 36 would change that to make sure
every person's vote is counted. It kind of guarantees the principle of one
person one vote.
RICK KARR: 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
GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: If you're a state where it's a close call between
closing a military base in Colorado with one electoral vote versus in Arizona
with nine or 10, all things being equal I think some administrations might
choose the state that has the electoral votes.
RICK KARR: That's why some politicians from both parties oppose
Amendment 36. The parties have too much to lose if the winner take all
system changes. At a political forum in rural Loveland, Colorado voters had
a lot of questions about the amendment.
FEMALE VOTER: Tell me why I should vote for Amendment 36.
RICK RIDDER, campaign manager, Make Your Vote Count: If Florida in 2000
had been on a proportional system it takes 100,000 votes per elector to
switch. So you wouldn't have had this problem with chads.
FEMALE VOTER: I think it's a wonderful, wonderful idea. I'm just
still a little undecided.
RICK KARR: The Colorado debate is the latest round in a fight that's
been going on since the founders sat down to draft the
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR, professor of history and social policy,
Harvard University: The founders had widely divergent views about
democracy. For most in fact the word 'democracy' was a disparaging word,
it was a negative word. They used the term 'republic.'
RICK KARR: And they created the Electoral College to serve as a buffer
again mob rule. The Constitution lets each state's legislature decide how
it's 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's more, most proposals to change the Electoral College would make it
easier for third parties to play a bigger role in presidential politics.
ANDREW BUSCH, professor of government, Claremont McKenna College: Ross Perot
for example in 1992 would have won a lot of electoral votes with 19 percent of
the vote. He didn't win any states so he actual got zero under the current
RICK KARR: So, if I hear you correctly we would have a situation in
which a candidate like a Ross Perot would be able to be a kingmaker of sorts by
throwing his electoral votes to someone.
ANDREW BUSCH, professor of government, Claremont McKenna College: That is exactly right. So 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 10 or 15 or 20 percent of the votes.
RICK KARR: Before a single vote on Colorado's Amendment 36 had been
counted a Fort Collins voter asked a federal judge to rule it
unconstitutional. The judge dismissed the suit, but it's central issue is
likely to be heard in court again if the amendment passes; that when voters went
to the polls they could not be sure how their votes would effect the electoral
RICHARD HASEN, professor of law, Loyola Law School: 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?
RICK KARR: Even some opponents of Amendment 36 say they might be in
favor of changing the Electoral College system.
GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: 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.
RICK KARR: Harvard's Alexander Keyssar says the nation needs to
confront once again the question of whether the U.S. is a republic or a
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR, professor of history and social policy,
Harvard University: The country right now pretty universally subscribes
to the notion that we are a democracy and that all votes should count
equally. And the Electoral College violates that principle.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us to talk about the Electoral College is James
Taranto editor of Opinion Journal.com. James you heard that last line
arguing that some votes under our current system are more equal that
others. Do you agree with that?
JAMES TARANTO: Yes, that's true and that's a good thing. Imagine
if every vote counted exactly the same as every other vote nationwide. The
first thing that would happen is you would have a much greater incentive for
fraud. Somebody in Louisiana or New Jersey steals a vote, he's stealing a
vote from everyone in the country. It's not contained to his state.
The second reason is, suppose you have a close election like we had in
2000. But a close election in a system where you choose the president by
direct popular vote. It would be Florida times 51. You would have a
nationwide recount. It would be a nightmare.
PAUL GIGOT: Or maybe times 3,066 since that's how many counties we
JAMES TARANTO: Yes, plus you've got some independent cities.
You've got St. Louis. It would be a mess.
PAUL GIGOT: There's a benefit of the Electoral College, is there not
Dan, in making plurality presidents? That is presidents, candidates who
win less than 50 percent of the vote turning them into majority presidents via
the Electoral College. I'm thinking in particular of Bill Clinton who won
43 percent of the vote in 1992, but one 370 electoral votes Ò 100 more than he
needs to prevail. Isn't that helping to establish legitimacy?
DAN HENNINGER: Absolutely and I think it does so in a
decisive way as opposed to, as the taped segment was saying, a direct popular
vote which would give enormous incentive to people lie Ross Perot to run.
He got 19 percent of the vote I think in that election. And then bargain
with either side to throw his votes in that direction. I think a system
like that really would be sending us towards a multiple party system like they
have in Europe. The two party system has served us very well.
PAUL GIGOT: All right Susan tell us where we're wrong.
SUSAN LEE: Oh my heavens. Well, first of all I disagree with
everything that everybody has said. Direct popular voting is the only way
not to disenfranchise people. As the taped piece said, if you live in the
state and you vote for the loser you have been disenfranchised, A.
B, Electoral College creates the incentive for fraud because the numbers are
much smaller so with a smaller number of fraud you can be more successful.
Direct popular vote it's very difficult to amass the number of fraudulent votes
that you need and that's a disincentive. The value is much less.
And thirdly, so what if we had three parties? So what if we had four
parties? If people want to vote.
DAN HENNINGER: Banana republic bill.
SUSAN LEE: I don't think so.
DAN HENNINGER: Absolutely
SUSAN LEE: I think you have a very strange idea of democracy.
PAUL GIGOT: What about the legitimacy point though Susan cause that's
an important one? If you have a 43 percent winner it helps to have some
system which says you know what, you're still a majority president and it helps
in governability does it not?
SUSAN LEE: Well, I think again this is based on the notion that people
don't understand that the person only got 43 percent. That suddenly after
the Electoral College votes and says oh, you have 300 electoral votes everybody
says oh, I forgot about the 43 percent. Suddenly this man is a fantastic
majority president. People are not that stupid.
PAUL GIGOT: James, how many times in U.S. history has the winner of the
popular vote lost the Electoral College.
JAMES TARANTO: Well, three or four depending on how you count it.
In 2000 of course as we all know. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison beat Grover
Cleveland, but Cleveland had a popular vote plurality. And in 1876 which
was a disputed election that was even more disputed than in 2000 Rutherford
Hayes beat Samuel Tilden who actually had a majority.
In addition, in 1824 Andrew Jackson had a popular vote plurality and John
Adams won the election in the House of Representatives but six states at that
time didn't choose electors by popular vote so it's [UNINTEL] ones you count
PAUL GIGOT: Except for one instance in more than 200 years the winner
of the electoral vote also won the popular vote. Well, I guess it's three
but in one case the person won 50 percent of the popular vote.
JAMES TARANTO: Right, only once has somebody who had the majority of
the popular vote and still lost the election and that was a questionable
JOHN FUND: The current system really comports with the way the country
was formed. We have 50 states. They all have a certain number of
electoral votes. The candidates, look at what they're doing now.
They're running all over the country trying to appeal to the electoral votes
within those states. If we went to a direct vote you could sit in
Washington and run your entire campaign off of television. Just run TV ads
on a national level.
PAUL GIGOT: If you were in Lacrosse, Wisconsin you'd never hear from
the presidential candidates in that kind of system.
SUSAN LEE: But you're only hearing from the presidential candidates
because Wisconsin is a swing state. Now you probably wish you weren't in
Wisconsin as a swing state. But their same incentives are in place under
PAUL GIGOT: Let's talk about the scenario of a tie. 269 to
269. It's happened a couple of times in our history. What happens if
that is the case and neither man gets an electoral majority?
JAMES TARANTO: If no man has a majority of the electoral vote then the
election goes to the House of Representatives. Each state's delegation
gets one vote and you need a majority. Most states have republican
majorities now so Bush would presumably win.
There's a bit of a wild card here though. What you could have is what's
called a faithless elector. You could have somebody cast a vote for let's
say John McCain. So it's 269, 268 and one for McCain. The
Constitution stipulates that the House has to choose from among the top three
finishers. So that would be a wildcard. That would be a way that
somebody else could theoretically win.
PAUL GIGOT: Alright, we've got to keep this short. But James,
what is happening in Colorado and what is the likelihood of that amendment
JAMES TARANTO: Well, the latest poll by Mason Dixon says 31 percent
yes, 55 percent no. That means it will almost certainly go down because
people tend to vote against initiatives that they're not sure about.
PAUL GIGOT: So we're going to have a replay of 2000 at least in the
electoral vote count this time. No reform unless something else
happens. Alright, thank you very much. Next subject.