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Push continues to defeat Electoral College

DAVE GRAM // Published February 5, 2009 in Associated Press

MONTPELIER — The 2008 presidential election is over, but the ghost of 2000 —when Democrat Al Gore won the national popular vote but lost in the Electoral College — lives on.

But advocates are pushing in Vermont and dozens of other states to get around the Electoral College without amending the U.S. Constitution.

Critics say the change would hurt small states like Vermont.

“There’s a major problem with our democracy, which is the incredible distinction between battleground states and everybody else,” said Rob Richie, of FairVote, a national election monitoring group.

Originally established to make the final decision on who becomes president, the Electoral College system gives each state a certain number of votes in the college, based on the size of its congressional delegation.

Often, all of a state’s electoral votes are given to whomever wins that state’s popular vote. For instance, even someone who wins New York by a single percentage point, 51-49, would get all 31 of the state’s electoral votes.

But when a presidential contest comes down to just a handful of states, all the candidates’ and media’s attention tends to end up focused there, Richie said.

He said less attention is then paid to issues of importance elsewhere, especially in states like Vermont and Wyoming, which are small and often seen as firmly in the corner of one party or the other.

Richie and other supporters of the National Popular Vote campaign say their goal is to ensure every vote cast for president in the country carries equal weight.

When that doesn’t appear to be happening, there’s less motivation to vote, Richie said.

The idea behind NPV is to have states pledge their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide — even if that state was carried by a candidate who lost the popular vote. If enough states join the national popular vote compact to make up 270 electoral votes, the popular vote will control the Electoral College outcome, the effort’s supporters say.

Chris Pearson, a former Vermont House member now working for the NPV campaign, said John Kerry nearly did the same thing to George W. Bush in 2004 that Bush did to Gore in 2000. “Kerry trailed by 3.5 million votes to Bush” in the national popular vote, “but if he could have swung 60,000 votes in Ohio, he would have won the Electoral College,” Pearson told a Vermont Senate committee on Thursday.

Four states — Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii and New Jersey — have enacted a popular vote bill, according to the National Popular Vote campaign.

It has won approval from both legislative houses in California, Rhode Island and Vermont, where governors vetoed it; and Massachusetts, where lawmakers then failed last summer to take the procedural vote to send it to the governor. Legislation has been filed in more than 40 states.

Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of the measure last May hasn’t discouraged supporters from reintroducing it in the new legislative session.

Democrats hold more than two-thirds of the Senate, and with 95 seats in the 150-member House, believe they could muster enough Progressives and independents to override another Douglas veto.

Douglas spokesman Stephen Wark said the Republican governor believes scrapping the Electoral College would diminish the influence of small states like Vermont in presidential elections.

“The election of the president should be based on the decisions of each state,” Douglas said when he vetoed the measure last spring. “If we retreat from this system, federalism — the rights and influence of individual states — will erode and move America closer to a single, centralized government where Vermont’s values are State Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said he’d done a “back-of-the-envelope” calculation showing that a Vermont voter would lose about two-thirds of his or her influence in a presidential election if the Electoral College were scrapped or subverted.

Brock said Vermont’s three electors make up about 0.55 percent of the Electoral College, while its residents make up just 0.21 percent of the national population. That small share means the state would gain no traction as a place for presidential campaigning, he said.

John Samples, an analyst with Washington think tank the Cato Institute, and Vermont GOP Chairman Rob Roper say that effectively making a single national voting district for presidential elections would mean that any disputes over outcome would not be limited to one state — like Florida in 2000 — but would become a nightmare engulfing the whole country.

Pearson says a disputed outcome in one state wouldn’t matter if the whole country’s votes were counted together.

Samples said those who wish to scrap the Electoral College should try to do it by amending the U.S. Constitution. To do it without a constitutional amendment would amount to “undermining the legitimacy of presidential elections,” he said.