Politics & Policy

A Rocky Electoral Picture

Colorado tweaks its voting system to favor Kerry.

Still stung by George Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the Electoral College four years ago, Democrats in Colorado have found a way to give John Kerry at least four electoral votes even if he loses the state’s popular vote. Had this new voting system been in place in 2000, it would have been just enough to push Gore over the top.

As almost everyone knows, presidents are not elected by popular vote in this country. Technically, electors voting in the Electoral College elect them. This year, that vote will take place on Dec. 13 in the various state capitals. The results are transmitted to Congress, where the votes will be formally counted on Jan. 6, 2005. It is only then that we will know for certain whom the next president will be.

One of the great strengths of the Electoral College is that it tends to magnify presidential victories. For example, although Bill Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996, he won comfortably in the Electoral College, which gave him a mandate to govern even though he lacked majority support among voters.

The reason for this is that almost all states have a winner-take-all system for awarding electoral votes. Whoever wins the popular vote gets all the state’s electoral votes — even if he wins by a single vote. A state’s electoral votes equal the total of its congressional seats plus two votes for its senators. (Washington, D.C., gets three votes, what it would have if it were a state.) Thus there are 538 total electoral votes and a candidate must get an absolute majority to become president.

Two states, however, have a different system, which the Constitution allows them to adopt by state law. In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are allocated according to whomever wins the popular vote in each congressional district. The overall winner of the state’s popular vote gets two extra votes.

In Maine, for example, there are two congressional districts for a total of four electoral votes. If candidate A wins the first district and candidate B wins the second, then each is awarded one electoral vote. Consequently, whichever candidate wins the state gets only three votes in total, not four, as would be the case everywhere else except Nebraska, which has the same system.

The proposed Colorado system, which will be on the ballot for voter approval in November, is quite different. It would prorate all of the state’s electoral votes on the basis of the popular vote. In practice, this means that the loser will always get at least four of Colorado’s nine electoral votes.

Let’s see how this system would have worked in 2000. That year, Bush won all eight of Colorado’s electoral votes (the state received another in the 2000 census) and got 271 nationwide, compared with Gore’s 266. If Bush had only gained five electoral votes in Colorado, with Gore receiving the other three, then Gore would have won the election with 269 electoral votes to Bush’s 268. (The total does not add up to 538 because one elector from the District of Columbia apparently did not vote.)

Although there are legitimate criticisms to make of the Electoral College, the Colorado effort is nothing but a transparently partisan effort to give Kerry a couple of extra electoral votes. If the election this year is as close as the polls suggest it will be, it could mean the margin of victory.

The potential closeness of the presidential vote in November raises another issue regarding the Electoral College. The total number of electors is an even number, meaning that an equal split of 269 electoral votes for each candidate is possible. If this occurs, the House of Representatives will choose the president. A simple solution would be to increase the size of the House by one, creating an odd number of electors.

Close elections also put pressure on electors to vote contrary to the way they are pledged, which many are allowed to do. In years past, there have been several such “faithless electors,” although none has ever affected the outcome of an election. In 2000, there was an organized effort by some Democrats to pressure Republican electors into changing their votes.

The faithless elector problem is also easily solved. States can require that their electors vote the way they are pledged, which is already the case in 26 states and the District of Columbia. In some cases, it is even a felony for an elector to vote for a different candidate than the one he is pledged to. A better solution would be to adopt the law in Michigan and North Carolina, which simply cancels that elector’s vote and provides for his replacement.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis.


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