Electoral College Reform Falls Flat
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Doing away with the winner-take-all system of allotting Electoral College votes was among the reforms proposed on the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers after last year's closely contested presidential election. But bills that would do that have been defeated in the first four state legislatures to consider them.
Back in January, more than 50 bills were pending in 21 states to change to systems in which candidates who win each congressional district would take one electoral vote and the statewide winner would receive two more at-large votes. Maine and Nebraska have such systems, but there's never been a split result in either.
In the past two months, legislative committees in Virginia, Colorado, Maryland and North Carolina rejected bills designed to move their states to a district system.
More failures are certain. Sponsors in Texas and Minnesota withdrew similar bills, though other versions remain alive. Action on a bill in Oklahoma was deferred until the 2002 legislative session.
"If more than two [states] pass it, I'd be shocked .And the two that do pass it ought to have their heads examined," said Larry Sabato, a professor of American politics at the University of Virginia. "All you are doing is diluting your strength in the election process, particularly since the vast majority of states are not going to do this.
"Superficially, it's an attractive reform scheme, until you think about it," he said.
Electoral college reform was thrust into the political spotlight after runner-up Al Gore received 529,000 more popular votes than winner George W. Bush. Ironically, had the district system been in place in all fifty states for last year's election, Bush would have won by a larger electoral college margin than he did.
The founding fathers, seeking to avoid a direct vote for president, established the electoral college system as part of the original design of the Constitution.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress in the last 200 years to "reform or eliminate" the college. All have failed. This happened despite a number of polls over the past 30 years showing a strong majority of Americans favor abolishing the system, the agency reported.
State lawmakers uncomfortable with the indirect elections produced by the electoral college and the winner-take-all system of awarding the spoils have introduced bills to try to chip away at the system.
Virginia Del. James Scott, D-Fairfax, sponsor of the Old Dominion State's doomed effort, said in addition to making election results more representative of the voters, splitting electoral votes by district would increase voter turnout by making every vote count.
He said it was a tough sell to a Republican-dominated legislature content with the results of elections in the state in the past decade and particularly last November when Bush easily carried Virginia.
"They asked [in committee] if this would have meant Bush wouldn't have received all of Virginia's electoral votes and I said yes," Scott said. "But I told them that wasn't the point."
The point was bringing more people into the process, increasing turnout by letting every voter know their vote would have counted, even Democrats who know well their state is dominated by the GOP, he said.
Scott almost succeeded passing the same bill in 1992, when the governor's mansion and Virginia's House of Delegates was in Democratic control. The measure passed the House but lost by one vote a Democrat's in the Senate.
Julie Flynn, Maine's deputy secretary of state, said the electors-by-district system in her state dates back to the 1968 presidential election. Momentum for dividing electoral votes snowballed in that state after President Richard Nixon edged Hubert Humphrey.
Nebraska lawmakers enacted a bill to split Electoral College votes by congressional district in 1991. In the three presidential elections that have followed, the state's five electoral votes have all gone for Republican presidential candidates.
Neal Erickson, Nebraska's assistant secretary of state for elections, said the 2000 presidential campaigns indicated the law might not be serving its intended purpose of "making the state more of a player" in national politics.
"We didn't get a presidential candidate this year or a vice presidential candidate," Erickson said. "We didn't even get the presidential candidates' wives. We got the vice president's wife. If the goal was to draw more attention, the state is still pretty solidly Republican at the top of the ticket."
Erickson said Republican Party officials have tried to do away with the elector-by-district system since it was first introduced, including a bill now under discussion in a legislative committee this year.
Electoral College Reform Efforts
|State||Status Of Bill|
|Colorado||Passed Senate, Died In House Committee|
|Maryland||Died In Committee|
|Missouri||One Bill Withdrawn, One In Committee|
|New Hampshire||In Committee|
|New Jersey||In Committee|
|New York||In Committee|
|North Carolina||Died In Committee|
|Oklahoma||Carried Over Until 2002 Session-|
|Texas||One Bill Withdrawn, One Left Pending In Committee|
|Virginia||Died In Committee|