Bypassing college

April 03, 2007

Maryland may soon become the first state in the nation to cast its vote toward making the U.S. Electoral College moot. Under legislation approved yesterday in the House, Maryland would commit all 10 of its electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote nationwide. The change would go into effect only if enough states to constitute an electoral majority follow suit - and 47 are reportedly considering it.

The state Senate approved a similar bill last week, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged his support, too. It's not hard to understand why - and not just because of the sting he and his fellow Democrats may still feel from the 2000 election when Al Gore captured a half-million more votes than George W. Bush but lost the electoral ballot in the Florida fiasco.

There is something intrinsically undemocratic about an electoral process that gives voters in certain states more clout than voters in others. As recently as in 2004, Mr. Bush's re-election hinged on the vote count in Ohio. The incumbent president won 3 million more votes nationally than John Kerry but might have lost the election if fewer than 60,000 Bush voters in the Buckeye State had switched to Mr. Kerry. At the same time, it wouldn't have made the slightest difference in the outcome if 60,000 Kerry voters in Maryland had chosen Mr. Bush.

The Electoral College was created by the Founding Fathers when the fledgling country didn't have the kinds of mass media and communications technology that are taken for granted today. The framers worried that under a direct election, voters in each of the 13 states would simply support favorite sons and that candidates from large states would always end up winning.

Today, elections are truly national affairs. News reporting is instant and broadly disseminated. Hillary Rodham Clinton is likely as well known to people in California as she is in Arkansas, just as Arizona's John McCain is very familiar to New Yorkers.

But this constitutional vestige has turned choosing a president into a strategic duel where a relatively few states, and not the country as a whole, hold sway. Why should a national election revolve around a candidate's views on steel tariffs or some other swing-state parochial concern?

Admittedly, Maryland's solution is a back-door approach to fixing this problem, and that gives us pause. Nor are enough states likely to join Maryland in time for 2008. The better fix would be for Congress to approve (and states to ratify) a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College. But that's highly unlikely given the partisan climate that prevails in Washington, where ensuring basic fairness to all voters is bound to take a back seat to political self-interest.

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