Electoral College reform in Md. sought

Bills call for giving nationwide victor all of state's votes

General Assembly

February 07, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Lawmakers hoping to propel Maryland into a more prominent role in presidential campaigns have introduced bills that would award the state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide.

The aim is to prevent a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, in which Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to Republican George W. Bush in the contest for electoral votes.

The Electoral College, which dates to the nation's founding and whose members are elected on a winner-take-all basis in most states, chooses the president weeks after the election.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A Wednesday incorrectly reported the percentage of the vote that Democrat John Kerry won in Maryland in the 2004 presidential election. Kerry received about 56 percent of the vote.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The idea of awarding a state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote is being discussed in more than 45 state legislatures this winter and is being promoted in Maryland by a leader of a key House committee.

If adopted by enough states, the change would make the Electoral College meaningless without amending the Constitution.

Critics of the idea - thought up by a Stanford University computer scientist - contend that bypassing the Electoral College could increase the influence of third parties and shift the focus of campaigns to large cities at the expense of rural areas.

It also evokes the 2000 election in another way: the possibility of recounts on an ever larger scale. Gore won the popular vote over President Bush in 2000 by half a percentage point, a margin that often prompts automatic recounts in statewide races. Forty years earlier, John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by about 118,500 votes.

"One of the chief advantages of the Electoral College today is that it isolates recounts to individual states," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and director of the school's Center for Politics. "It's inevitable we're going to have another squeaker election, and we'd be asking for it in that sense."

The Maryland bill is the most radical of the dozens of election reform proposals that the General Assembly is weighing this year. It is also the most complex.

Last year, the California Assembly agreed to award that state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

A spokesman for Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said he has not taken a position.

"This proposal is a tricky one just because of the complexity of the subject matter," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the measure in the Senate.

"If we can get legislators to focus on it for somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, then we've got a good shot. Everybody just needs a tutorial on the Electoral College and why it's a constitutional accident waiting to happen every four years."

Under the current system, Maryland and most other states award electoral votes based on the winner of the popular vote in each individual state.

With the nation closely divided in the last two elections, the current system has resulted in candidates jet-setting among key states that can help them secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

Candidates concentrate on such states - including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan - while voters in solidly partisan states get little if any attention. After the 2004 conventions, only Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards stumped in Maryland.

"The presidential race in Maryland is a spectator sport," Ryan O'Donnell, a spokesman for the California-based group pushing the idea, told a House of Delegates panel yesterday.

Under the current system, when voters cast their ballots for president, they are really picking a slate of electors chosen by their candidate's political party.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry won 69 percent of the popular vote in Maryland, so the state sent 10 electors nominated by the state Democratic Party to the state's gathering of the Electoral College. It's a winner-take-all system, so even if Kerry had won by one vote, all of the state's electoral votes would have gone his way.

If Maryland had been selecting electors based on the outcome of the popular vote, the state would have sent 10 Republican electors to the Electoral College to vote for President Bush.

The proposed system wouldn't go into effect until it was agreed to by states with electors representing a majority of the members of the Electoral College.

The Constitution gives states the power to determine how their electors are chosen and to enter into interstate agreements. The number of electors equals the size of a state's congressional delegation, which is largely determined by population.

Political scientists who back the measure say that electing presidents based on the popular vote would lend legitimacy to an electoral process that lost a lot of it in 2000. Theoretically, it also would give Republican voters in solidly Democratic states such as Maryland more of an incentive to vote.

There are also potential hidden consequences.

The Electoral College protects the two-party system, said Theodore J. Lowi, a Cornell University political scientist and professor.

In 1992, independent Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. Under a system determined by the popular vote, many new parties and personalties could emerge. Lowi doesn't think that's a bad thing, but political parties might.

If a large number of such parties on the political left grew in power and fielded credible candidates, for instance, the Democratic nominee would have a difficult time winning the popular vote against a candidate backed by a united conservative front.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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