U.S. Should Flunk Electoral College, Sen. Nelson Says

William March // Published June 14, 2008 in The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - Saying the United States should "abolish this archaic way we elect presidents," Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson argued in a Tampa news conference Friday for eliminating the Electoral College.

Inspired by the Florida fiascos in both the 2000 and this year's presidential primaries, Nelson says it's time for presidential election changes both in primaries and in the general election.

He is also proposing a nationwide primary system, with groups of states rotating through a series of set primary dates.

There have been calls for years to abolish the Electoral College, but the "chaos" in this year's primary "conjured up all the memories of 2000," and may create momentum for change, Nelson said.

Not all political experts agree that abolishing the Electoral College is best for democracy. The Electoral College has advantages, including insuring that small states and rural areas get some attention from presidential candidates, some experts say.

In 2000, Florida's presidential election ended in a disputed recount that handed the election to George Bush, who had lost the nationwide popular vote by 455,000. He was the third popular vote loser elected president in history.

In the Electoral College, established by the Constitution, each state gets a number of electors equal to its total number of U.S. House members and senators.

That creates the possibility that a popular vote loser can become president.

In most states, the electors all vote for the statewide winner, regardless of the winning margin, in a "winner-take-all" system. That means, in effect, that candidates for president must win states, not votes.

"I don't think anyone would argue that the person who gets the most votes ought to be president," Nelson said. "We operate on the basic principle of majority rule and one-man, one-vote."

Nelson said he wants to "head off" a potential crisis that could occur if a candidate won in the Electoral College even after losing by a larger number of votes.

He noted that the Electoral College "over-compensates" smaller states, because every state gets two electoral votes for its senators. Small-state senators represent fewer constituents.

However, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who advocates reforming but not abolishing the Electoral College, said it also has advantages:

•It guarantees that presidential candidates will occasionally campaign in small states and rural areas, while in a popular vote election, they would focus on major metropolitan areas.

•"It enhances federalism, a principle of the republic."

•"As Florida's 2000 experience shows, it isolates recounts," meaning disputed results are confined to a state or states.

In a popular vote election, a disputed outcome in one state could lead to demands for a nationwide recount. "We'd never get a president," Sabato said.

Abolishing the Electoral College would be mostly neutral as far as partisan advantage, but might help Democrats somewhat, Sabato said. Smaller states are a bit more likely to vote Republican.

He said it would increase presidential attention to large states such as Florida with large metropolitan areas, but since Florida gets so much presidential candidate attention already there likely wouldn't be much change.

Sabato advocates enlarging the Senate, making both it and the Electoral College more reflective of population.

Nelson acknowledged it will be difficult to achieve the constitutional amendment necessary to abolish the Electoral College, because small states will oppose it.

To "speed things along," he also recommends the move for "national popular vote" legislation in each state. According to the movement's Web site, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland have passed it.

Under that legislation, a state agrees to give its electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, regardless of the outcome in the state.

The legislation specifies that it won't take effect until states representing a total of 270 electoral votes, a majority in the Electoral College, have passed it, agreeing to abide by the national vote. That would guarantee the national vote winner becomes president.

Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761 or wmarch@tampatrib.com.