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Initiative could make elections more fair

J. SCOTT CHRISTIANSON // Published January 20, 2009 in The Columbia Tribune
In the lead-up to today’s presidential inauguration, the media outlets are once again filled with pundits explaining how Barack Obama won the election. A brilliant strategy, tireless volunteers, a once-in-a-generation leader - all angles are being pushed and prodded. One speedy fellow - Chuck Todd - even managed to write and publish a book titled "How Barack Obama won" just in time for sale at the inauguration.

I’m inclined to believe the good things being said about President Obama and his campaign, but I’m also sure that Todd and the other pundits would now be pontificating on how brilliant John McCain’s campaign was if he had won in November. To the victor go the spoils, I guess. But these founts of political wisdom are missing an important aspect about the past election and all modern presidential elections: All presidential campaigns are tailored to fit the awkward and inherently unfair system by which we elect presidents, namely the Electoral College.

Most of us are vaguely aware that a winning candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. That magic number is one vote more than half of the 538 total electoral votes possible: one for every one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, one for each senator of every state and three electors for the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, this means that while the number of electors that a state sends to the electoral college is somewhat proportional to the population of state, it is not directly proportional. This problem is compounded by the fact that 48 of the states have a "winner take all" approach to assigning their electors. For example, McCain won Missouri by 0.15 percent but was awarded 100 percent of Missouri’s 11 electors. These two aspects of our current Electoral College system lead to some very undemocratic effects.

First, a presidential candidate can win the popular vote but not win the necessary votes in the Electoral College to become president. This has happened several times in our history. Second, some votes count more than others. Votes in the Electoral College from less populous states are given more weight. For example, if you live in Nebraska, Rhode Island or Vermont, your vote counts about twice as much as our votes do here in Missouri.

Any fair system of elections - from city council to president - should uphold these two basic principles: Whoever gets the most votes wins, and everyone’s vote counts equally.

The Electoral College also has some disturbing effects on the way that campaigns are run. There is no reason for candidates to run in all 50 states. Typically, most of the country is essentially left out of the campaign, and a few "battleground" states emerge into which all energy and money are poured. So the issues of the battleground states become the key issues of most campaigns, instead of the important issues of the country as a whole. Moreover, if there are any voting irregularities, voter suppression, counting errors or other problems in one of the battleground states, it can affect the outcome of the presidential selection. Unfortunately, this encourages some political operatives to try their hand at "electioneering" in the most contested states.

I could go on about the problems with the Electoral College, but the real question is what to do about it. Unfortunately the most direct route - changing the Constitution - has been blocked time after time by the small states that have a disproportionately higher representation in the Electoral College.

A more effective means of changing the system has been proposed in recent years: the National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. The NPV doesn’t attempt to eliminate the Electoral College, but it uses the power of each state to determine how its votes are cast in the Electoral College - a power that is explicitly given to the states in the U.S. Constitution.

It works like this: Individual state legislatures, such as Missouri’s General Assembly, pass a law to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. The legislation is part of an interstate compact with other states that pass the same legislation. The law would not take effect until enough states have entered the compact to elect a president that magic 270 number.

So far, this plan has been adopted in four states: Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland and New Jersey. Numerous other states are considering it. It is perhaps not the most elegant of options, but it is the best opportunity that we have to make the selection process for our president and vice president more fair to all.

Tomorrow night, the League of Women Voters will host a discussion on the National Popular Vote Compact at the Boone County Electric Community Room starting at 7 p.m. This is a great place to learn more about the NPV initiative and hear a careful analysis of the issue.