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Sunday, September 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Colorado considers dividing its 9 Electoral College votes

By Paul Nussbaum
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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DENVER — Voters will decide in November whether Colorado should become the first to divide its electoral votes for president according to the popular vote.

The ballot initiative is the latest attempt in a 200-year history of efforts to change the way Americans elect their president. The current Electoral College system can result — as it did in 2000 — in a president who loses the popular vote but wins the majority of electoral votes.

The Electoral College system, established in the Constitution, has been a favorite target for change: More than 700 amendments have been proposed, more than on any other subject. The Colorado initiative may launch another national debate.

"Activity in the states could trigger demand nationwide," said Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington research organization that supports the direct election of the president. "If it passes in Colorado, the Republicans might decide to go after California" — traditionally a lock for Democratic presidential candidates — "and that could really get things moving."

Under the Constitution, state legislatures have the power to decide how their state's presidential electors are chosen. Most states, including Colorado, have a winner-take-all system. But Colorado supporters argue that a shift to proportional allocation would represent voters' wishes more fairly and would encourage more citizens to vote.

Opponents contend that a divided electoral vote usually would result in a 5-4 outcome in Colorado, making the state irrelevant in presidential elections.

Two states, Maine and Nebraska, permit their electoral votes to be divided. They award two electoral votes to the winning candidate statewide and the rest (two in Maine, three in Nebraska) to the winner in each congressional district. In practice, however, neither state has split its electoral vote since adopting that system (Maine in 1972, Nebraska in 1991).

Democrat Al Gore in 2000 won the nationwide popular election by 540,520 votes, but Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote, 271-266. The Constitution requires that a candidate win a majority of the electoral votes to be elected (there are 538 electoral votes, so 270 are necessary to win); otherwise, the outcome is decided by the House.

If Colorado had divided its electoral votes in 2000, when it had eight votes, it could have changed the outcome of the election. Colorado would have gone 5-3 for Bush instead of 8-0. That would have been enough to tip the Electoral College balance in Gore's favor, 269-268, one shy of victory.

One elector, a Democrat from the District of Columbia, did not vote, as a protest against the district's lack of representation in Congress. If the election outcome had hung in the balance and that disaffected elector thus had decided to vote for the candidate of his party, Gore would have won, 270-268.
 
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The current ballot initiative, if approved, would take effect for this year's election.

Katy Atkinson, a Republican political consultant who is helping to lead the opposition as spokeswoman for Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea, said Colorado should not "unilaterally disarm" in political wars.

"If it were being done nationwide, it wouldn't be quite so offensive," Atkinson said. "But we'd be the only state doing things this way. It would leave Colorado with one net electoral vote, which is not the way you want to go. We'd be less influential even than Wyoming or Rhode Island."

Julie Brown, director of Make Your Vote Count, the group that gathered the signatures to put the proposal on the ballot, said dividing the electoral votes was a "basic issue of fairness." She noted that Colorado has relatively little clout in presidential elections anyway.

"The state rarely gets presidential visits. ... They come here to fund-raise or if they need an advantageous photo op," Brown said. "I'm more interested in real clout — how much money do we get back for schools and roads? And right now, it's not much."

In a state that leans Republican, officials of that party have attacked the measure as a ploy to steal votes from Bush.

Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, and state GOP chairman Ted Halaby have criticized the initiative. State Sen. Ron Tupa, a Boulder Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to change Colorado's electoral system in 2001, backs it.

Dan Hopkins, spokesman for Owens, told The Washington Post that the most recent private polls he saw showed that the initiative had majority support, but he added that was the situation before Owens and others began mounting an active campaign against it.

George Edwards, a Texas A&M University professor and the author of "Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America," said states divided their electoral votes in the early days of the nation. As parties developed, the dominant party in each state realized it could collect more votes in a winner-take-all system, Edwards said.

"The basic motivation was greed on the part of the dominant party," he said.

Opinion polls consistently have shown that most Americans favor direct election of the president (most recently, 59 percent in a December 2000 Gallup poll), while surveys of political scientists have supported the Electoral College system. Some nonpartisan voter organizations, including the League of Women Voters, also endorse direct election.

The current system "violates the one-person, one-vote rule," said Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters. "It's essential to representative government to get it changed."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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