When winner takes all, we lose: Fix electoral college now

Bill Hammond // Published October 28, 2008 in New York Daily News

No matter who wins the presidential election next week, it's already clear who lost: the 8.6 million voters of New York State.

Thanks to the undemocratic throwback known as the Electoral College, New Yorkers are playing almost no role in picking the next leader of the free world.

No inspiring rallies. No pandering to our local concerns. Precious few diner visits or door-to-door campaigning. The only time we see a presidential campaign commercial is when Barack Obama chooses to blow part of his bottomless war chest on a national broadcast.

The bottom line is Democrats have a lock on our 31 electoral votes. So Obama is taking our state for granted, and John McCain is writing us off.

Once again, the third most populous state in the nation is watching from the sidelines - as are California, Texas and countless other safe states - while the privileged voters of big and small "battleground" states like Ohio, Florida, Nevada and New Hampshire make history.

So, though civics teachers will insist that every vote counts, when it comes to casting ballots for President in a safe state, that's simply not true.

Let this be the last time New York allows itself to be ignored.

Bubbling just beneath the surface, there's a move afoot to switch to a national popular vote for President - or at the very least, to divvy up electoral votes proportionately. New York should get on board.

The insanity of the Electoral College hit home most vividly in 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore. A country that calls itself a democracy has no business handing its biggest, most powerful office to the guy who gets fewer votes.

And the upside-down result of 2000 wasn't as fluky as you might think. The Electoral College had anointed the runnerup three times before. It almost happened again in 2004: If John Kerryhad squeaked out another 60,000 votes in Ohio, he might have won the Electoral College despite falling 3.5 million short in the popular vote.

But even when the Electoral College gets it right, it has an unhealthy effect on our politics.

Candidates who aspire to the White Househave no choice but to focus most intensely on the needs and wants of a handful of states that, due to accidents of geography, happen to be evenly split between the major parties.

So White House hopefuls of both parties spend way too much time worrying about corn farmers and anti-Castro Cuban refugees and nowhere near enough focusing on concerns such as mass transit and protecting major cities from terrorist attacks.

Contrary to popular belief, this system is not dictated by the Constitution. The states have a right to decide how they pick their representatives to the Electoral College - which means Albany can be part of the solution.

One fix would be to do away with the winner-take-all rule, in which all of a state's electoral votes go to the winner of that state's popular vote, no matter how close. That would give Democratic candidates a reason to compete in Republican states and vice versa. It would reflect the reality that most parts of the country are neither pure red nor blue, but some shade of purple.

An even cleaner fix would be electing Presidents directly by popular vote. And it wouldn't necessarily require a constitutional amendment.

Under the so-called "National Popular Vote" proposal, states would promise to award all of their electoral votes to whoever tallies the most ballots nationwide. But it wouldn't take effect until states controlling a clear majority of 270 electoral votes have adopted the policy - to assure neither party gets an unfair advantage.

The proposal has already passed in four states - New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and Hawaii. It's 19% of the way there. New York could move it to 30%.

For the good of the state and the country, Albany lawmakers should cast their votes for real democracy.