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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Electoral College Reform? 

The Denver Post reports that
The wealthy president of a Brazilian university is bankrolling an initiative to end Colorado's winner-take-all presidential electoral system.

J. Jorge Klor de Alva is the major donor to The People's Choice for President - a nonprofit group seeking voters' permission to award Colorado's Electoral College votes proportionally as a percentage of the statewide popular vote.

For example, a candidate who wins 60 percent at the polls could snag five of the state's nine electoral votes, leaving the remaining four to a candidate who wins 40 percent on Election Day.

The group has begun to collect signatures; it needs 67,799 to get the measure on the ballot.

If approved Nov. 2, the constitutional amendment would affect this year's choice for president by immediately permitting the division of Colorado electoral votes. And it would mark the most ambitious Electoral College reform yet in the nation.
Ostensibly, this reform would be more ambitious than similar (and successfully adopted) efforts in Maine and Nebraska in that no electors would be awarded based on statewide success [Maine and Nebraska each set aside two electors for the statewide winner, with the rest determined proportionally to the vote distribution].

I have no idea whether this proposal will actually make it onto the ballot, nor whether it will pass. But it is worth asking two questions: why Colorado? And what will the likely effects be?

Why Colorado?
The U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the power to choose the method of selecting presidential electors...Klor de Alva's group picked Colorado to launch a proportional system because state case law broadly defines the state legislature to include citizens participating in a ballot referendum - thereby, in the proponents' view, fulfilling the U.S. Constitution's requirement. It helps, backers say, that it's far easier to float ballot issues here.
I have no idea whether this will pass legal muster, but it's an interesting fact, nonetheless.

Now to the more interesting questions: what can we expect if the ballot measure passes? First, as Colorado GOP leaders have already pointed out, since Colorado is likely to be won by George W. Bush, successful passage of the initiative will probably deprive the incumbent of at least one or two electors he would have won under the current system.

But looking beyond the immediate term, it's tougher to guess what the effects will be. Colorado has leaned Republican in recent elections, but I am unaware of what long-term trends are operating in the state. To the extent that the parties are now or will in the future be well-balanced, moving to a more proportional electoral college rule will clearly hurt the state in terms of attention received from candidates for national office. If Colorado becimes strongly but not completely dominated by one party (say the Republicans), the proposed reforms are likely to modestly increase benefits flowing to Colorado from DC.

Why? Under current rules, winning a plurality of the state's votes nets a candidate a big prize: the sum total of Colorado's electors. If Colorado is a swing state, both candidates will pay a lot of attention in such a situation. The incumbent is likely to use his office to send government dollars to the state. The challenger is likely to do what he can to woo voters as well (although this might take the form of unenforceable campaign promises rather than sweet cold cash). But remember that both candidates have limited budgets of time, money and political influence. In this situation, it becomes clear that if Colorado moves away from a system which disproportionally rewards a tiny plurality of votes (where one extra vote can mean the difference between 9 electors and zero) to a proportional system (where the value of an extra vote is limited to an increase of one elector, if that), suddenly Colorado looks like a much less attractive investment.

On the other hand, if the state is dominated by one party, but the nation as a whole is more or less evenly divided, a candidate from the disadvantaged party has no incentive to pay any attention to Colorado under current rules (think of Democrats in Oklahoma or Republicans in Massachusetts). Under the proposed rules, however, the prospect of the disadvantaged candidate winning one elector might attract attention from both parties.

All this is merely to point out that electoral college reform, which is usually thought of in terms of fairness, decency, and democratic norms, has implications for pork, campaign spending, and the future tilt of political attention as well. It's best not to forget.

[Link via Political Wire]

UPDATE: Jane Galt has a similar (though less complete) analysis here.

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