Electoral mischief

September 20, 2004

REGARDLESS OF what might be said in defense of awarding the presidency to a candidate who came in second in the popular vote, the practice creates such hard feelings it would be best if it didn't happen again.

And yet the country seems to be just as divided this year as it was when George W. Bush depended on the Electoral College (after agonizing rounds of recounts) to install him in the White House four years ago. Political analysts believe it could well remain that way for a decade or more.

So the notion of scrapping an antiquated system that dilutes the principle of one man, one vote holds great appeal.

But the change should be made on a national basis to apply uniform standards throughout. Unfortunately, that task appears so difficult, states are starting to act on their own -- opening the door to all manner of electoral mischief.

Now at the center of the Electoral College debate is Colorado, where voters will be asked in November to vote on whether to scrap the winner-take-all basis used for awarding presidential electors in 48 states and replace it with a system that awards Colorado's nine electors according to the proportion of votes cast for each candidate.

If such a change were made nationwide, the Electoral College results would probably more closely reflect the popular vote. But if each state moves independently to adopt its own system, the results could be chaotic.

Maine and Nebraska have already chosen to award electors by congressional district plus a bonus of two for the statewide winner. Other possible permutations are limited only by imagination. Perhaps worst of all would be gerrymandering of election district lines depending on which party had the power to draw the maps.

In fact, there seems to be more than a little partisan mischief behind the Democrat-backed initiative in Colorado. If successful, the change would award even the loser in a closely divided contest four of the state's nine electors. That could have cost President Bush his victory in 2000.

But Republicans can play that game, too, and are eyeing California, which often gives all 55 of its electors to the Democratic candidate.

Gaming the system at the state level won't enhance the credibility of national elections, though, and could easily undermine it further.

Perhaps the huge strides in communications -- notably the Internet -- mean the time has arrived to move to a system of direct popular elections. Or the country could return to awarding electors by congressional district, like Maine and Nebraska, a practice abandoned early in the 19th century after the rise of political parties, whose bosses favored the winner-take-all approach. Or maybe Colorado's proportional model is best.

What's certain is that we need a national consensus. Even if continued frustration at the current system with the electorate in near equilibrium fails to produce such an agreement, a state-by-state hodgepodge is not the way to go.

So, for sake of the rest of the country, let's hope Colorado votes no.

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