Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bolkcom Introduces National Popular Vote Plan

Bolkcom Introduces National Popular Vote Plan

The election reform debate of the seven years since Florida has focused on equipment, IDs and felony purges. But one fundamental electoral issue has been largely off the national radar: the Electoral College. No matter how you slice the hanging chads or the one-vote Supreme Court ruling that affirmed George W. Bush's 573 vote Florida win (?) in 2000, the fact remains that Al Gore won half a million more votes than Bush.

2000 was the fourth time, and the first since 1888, that a popular vote loser went to the White House, thanks to the Electoral College, a system that in practice awards the entire weight of a state's vote to the statewide winner.

Electoral College reform at the federal level would take a Constitutional amendment. But state lawmakers around the country are taking on the 18th century relic. If legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, is passed, Iowa may join two other states on the road to the popular vote.

The National Popular Vote Plan does an end-around on the cumbersome Constitutional amendment process with a state by state approach, awarding the state's electoral votes to the national popular vote winner.

Electoral College 101: Each state has one elector --they're real people -- per U.S. House member and Senator. The smallest states have three, Iowa has seven, California has 55. States may choose their presidential electors any way they wish, but since the Civil War all states have held a popular vote. The general practice, used by 48 states, is an at-large system. The statewide winner wins all the electoral votes in the state, the loser gets none.

Republican voters in closely divided Iowa went unrepresented in the Electoral College in 2000, even though Bush won almost half of the state's vote. The tables turned in 2004, as Democrats were shut out when Bush narrowly beat John Kerry in the state.

(The two exceptions to winner-take-all, Maine and Nebraska, use a congressional district system. Both states are small and neither has ever split their votes.)

With a combination of narrow wins in big states and landslide losses in other states, a candidate can win with fewer popular votes than an opponent, as Bush did in 2000.

The National Popular Vote Plan awards all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, not the statewide winner. There's a catch. Since no state wants to disadvantage itself under the current system, the National Popular Vote Plan only takes effect when states comprising a majority of electoral votes, at present 270, approve it. Thus the Electoral College, while still in existence, would become a simple rubber stamp for the decisive national popular vote.

Dave Tingwald of Iowa City was a Democratic elector in 2000, and he'd be just as happy to see the Electoral College go. "The proposal shows Senator Bolkcom's commitment to putting good government before politics," he said.

Surprisingly, there was no major effort for Constitutional change after 2000. Part of that may have been partisanship. Democrats were wearing of having their 2000 ticket mocked as "Sore-Loserman," and any Republican who backed Electoral College reform would have been tacitly arguing for Bush's illegitimacy.

But another factor was that the bar for a Constitutional amendment is high: two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress and approval from 38 states. The last serious effort at a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College was led by Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana in the 1960s. His plan passed the House but was stalled in the Senate by small-state opposition. Bayh is now serving on the National Popular Vote advisory board.

In contrast, the state-by-state approach could pass with the support of just the eleven largest states. Maryland and New Jersey, with a combined 25 electoral votes, are the two states already on board.

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