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The Colorado Solution

// Published September 27, 2004 in The Boston Globe

REFORMERS DREAMING of abolishing the outdated, antidemocratic Electoral College have been hampered by the long and complex process required to amend the Constitution. But voters in Colorado have discovered that they can opt out of the most egregious aspects of the system by passing a simple state law. Should Colorado voters agree to the change in a ballot initiative this November, a new electoral math would take effect immediately for the 2004 presidential election.

The Constitution permits individual states to decide how to apportion their electoral votes, which match the number of congressional seats in each state, including the two senators. Most have a winner-take-all system, so even a closely divided state tips all its votes into the winner's column. Maine and Nebraska are the only states that allow for a division of electoral votes; the statewide winner gets two and the rest are allotted to the winner in each congressional district.

Colorado's proposal goes further. It would apply a strict proportional distribution of its nine electoral votes so that in a close race, five could go to one candidate and four to the opponent. If this system had been in place in 2000, when Colorado had only eight votes, Al Gore would have captured three to George Bush's five.

Even a handful of electoral votes can change a close race. Bush became president by just five Electoral College votes over Gore after the Supreme Court awarded Florida's contested tally to Bush.

In Colorado, debate is raging over whether the change would make the state more important in the presidential sweepstakes or less. Some fear that Colorado, currently a battleground state, would receive less attention from presidential candidates under the split system. Others say it would make Colorado a perpetual swing state. Opponents argue that the change should be nationwide.

It would be preferable if every state scrapped the winner-take-all system, but there is no reason Colorado should not be a pioneer. In any case, if voters adopt the change, it ought to be because the current system is antidemocratic, not because the state will be lavished with more attention from the national media.

A Colorado-style reform would not fix one lopsided aspect of the Electoral College: the advantage enjoyed by small states. Because two votes (representing the two senators) would still go to each state regardless of its size, small states would continue to have a disproportionate influence in the presidential election. An example: California, the most populous state, has only 18 times more electoral votes (55) than Wyoming (3) even though it has 69 times Wyoming's population. Even with its flaws, the Colorado solution ought to be tried. It is a first step toward restoring honesty to the national franchise.