Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2004 / 6 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Joshua Spivak

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Play by the rules, Colorado | Despite the calls for reform or outright abolition of the Electoral College system after the popular-vote champion lost the presidency in 2000, nothing happened.

However, in a referendum scheduled Nov. 2, Colorado may change that. A proposed amendment to the state's constitution would immediately alter how it allocates its nine electoral votes. John Kerry would almost certainly benefit from the shift, picking up a few electoral votes in an otherwise safe Republican state. The latest polls give President Bush roughly a six-point edge there. Under a new system, the electoral vote would be split 5-4.

Supporters of Electoral College reform might look to Colorado's proposal with hope, but they shouldn't. By making a change to the rules, the state's decision could wreak havoc with the legitimacy of our already-embattled system.

Measures to revamp the Electoral College are not new. More than 700 proposed amendments have gone before Congress. But Colorado's referendum, which would divide its electoral votes based on the percentage of the popular vote the candidate receives, is different. It would change the rules of the race as it is being run.

Misguided support

Despite strenuous opposition, polls show that a majority of Colorado voters might support the change. If the referendum succeeds and survives legal challenges, interest groups and other state legislatures might also seek to switch their state's allocation method for partisan advantage.

This has happened in the past: In 1800, Virginia switched from the separate electors for each congressional district — "the district plan" — to the winner-take-all "unit rule" in order to benefit native son Thomas Jefferson. And in a noteworthy example in 1892, Michigan switched to the district plan to help Grover Cleveland, and then switched back to the unit rule for the 1896 election.

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The dangers of these partisan-based switches are obvious. As with the abusive gerrymandering that has warped congressional districts in recent years, presidential elections may be decided by the decisions of the party in power.

Whatever the difficulties inherent in the Electoral College, voters have at least put up with the established winner-take-all formula. In recent years, Maine and Nebraska have changed their allocation to the district system. But the result so far has been the same as winner take all. And both changes were enacted years before a presidential election.

Colorado is a different story. If the state does away with the nearly uniform standard as the election hangs in the balance, especially if this change is for the benefit of one party, voters will question whether the electoral process is fair.

Case in point: Florida

The Florida debacle of 2000 provides the perfect illustration of the need for an established electoral system. Sure the election hung by a thread, but that's not a problem. Americans are used to cliffhangers.

What disturbed voters were the attempts by both parties to change the rules in midstream. By courtroom strategies and bare-knuckle politics, each party was trying to game the system to its advantage. Al Gore's crucial misstep began when he called for a recount in some, but not all, counties. The popular opinion immediately saw through a candidate espousing a "count every vote" slogan, but in reality just trolling for random ballots to put himself over the edge.

  Electoral history

The Republican Party's rule-shifting started weeks before the election, when it floated a trial balloon on the possibility of denying Gore the White House if he lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College. When the opposite came to pass, the idea was dropped. And as federal and state courts were making their determinations, Republicans made it clear that the ruling would not stand — that Florida's legislature was prepared to overturn the popular vote if the recount changed the results.

The ramifications of these shenanigans live on: Questions surrounding the legitimacy of Bush's presidency cast a shadow over his first term for a large portion of voters. It's no accident that after coming into office with a bitterly contested recount fight, Bush is one of the most polarizing political figures in recent memory.

Criticism of the 2000 election focused on the political gamesmanship in Florida.

In 2000, as in the last "wrong-winner" election in 1888, most voters were willing to accept that under the Electoral College, a popular-vote loser could become president. But if the wrong winner takes office because of Colorado's last-minute reallocation of electoral votes, Americans may not be as understanding. The rules of the game have been set. Play with them

JWR contributor Joshua Spivak is an attorney, writer and media consultant with the firm Ripp Media. Comment by clicking here.


08/31/04: Political Conventions: Once cutting edge, now almost useless
08/26/04: Time to pay attention to campaign inancing

© 2004, Joshua Spivak