Electoral College needs reform

// Published October 4, 2004 in The Modesto Bee

America picks its presidents by a vote of the majority, right? Not always. Actually, 538 electors — members of the Electoral College, an institution embedded in the U.S. Constitution — choose the president.

Usually, their votes mirror the popular vote. But not always, as was demonstrated in 2000 and twice in the 19th century. In those elections, the popular-vote loser became president.

The Electoral College is an 18th-century anachronism that, if not abolished, should at least be amended so that presidential elections more closely reflect the will of the majority.

Sticking with the current system invites a number of problems. One is that a single, sparsely populated state can determine the winner in a close race. While Florida was the key battleground in 2000, it could have been New Mexico or Nevada. This year's presidential campaigns are flooding Nevada with TV ads to secure the state's five electoral votes, while California, with its 55 electoral votes, is ignored. Why? Because California has been ceded to Kerry.

That raises a second problem. In most states, it's all-or-nothing. The winner of the popular vote gets all of the electoral votes; the loser gets none. That can skew the results. Maine and Nebraska do it differently. They allocate electoral votes based on the popular vote in each congressional district. In Colorado, a ballot measure would go a step further, if passed — awarding electoral votes to each candidate by statewide percentage.

Other states could devise other formulas in pursuit of greater equity or in pursuit of greater leverage. Why not have one formula for all states?

Awarding electoral votes by congressional district — even if failing to mimic the popular will — would at least force presidential candidates not to take any state for granted. Suddenly 40 percent of California's electoral votes would be more attractive than all of Nevada's.

A national debate is needed.