Colorado vote reform could alter election

Tribune senior correspondent

How's this for a cliffhanger scenario on election night? The popular vote for president is close across the country, the Electoral College tally is neck-and-neck, and all eyes turn to Colorado--where nobody can say for sure how many of the state's nine electoral votes should go to Sen. John Kerry or President Bush.

That's the outcome worrying both Republican and Democratic leaders here if voters approve a ballot amendment that would fundamentally change the way Colorado apportions its electoral votes and would allow the change to apply to this presidential race.

Right now, Colorado distributes its Electoral College votes the way 47 other states have long done it: The winner of the popular vote gets all the electoral votes.

But if Amendment 36, as the proposal is known, passes Tuesday, Colorado would begin awarding its nine electoral votes on a proportional basis, according to the percentage of the popular vote each candidate receives. If the presidential results here are close, as some polls suggest they could be, it would mean the winner might get five of Colorado's electoral votes and the loser could walk away with four.

If Colorado had been using such a system in the 2000 election, Al Gore might have won the presidency. And because such a crucial change--taking some electoral votes from the winner in Colorado and awarding them as a kind of consolation prize to the loser--could tip the balance this time around, lawyers from both campaigns are poised to pounce if the amendment passes, portending yet another election night in which neither candidate emerges as the undisputed winner.

Proponents of the idea hope Colorado can spark a national drive to reform the Electoral College to make it more directly reflect the results of the popular vote for president. Moves for such reform have increased since 2000, when Gore won the popular vote but did not win the presidency.

"This is a much fairer way and a much more accurate reflection of the how the state actually voted," said Julie Brown, campaign director for Make Your Vote Count, a non-partisan group pushing the amendment. "We hold elections so that the people can vote, guaranteeing the right of one person, one vote. We're trying to restore representative government."

But opponents foresee nothing short of disaster for Colorado if the amendment passes.

`Electoral suicide'

"It's tantamount to electoral suicide for a small state like Colorado to divide our Electoral College votes," said Katy Atkinson, spokeswoman for the non-partisan group opposing the amendment, Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea. "We have nine votes. As long as those votes are held together, we have a chance at being relevant on the national political stage. If we change that, it would mean we would have one net Electoral College vote, which would make us the least relevant state in the country."

The only recent poll to gauge voter attitudes toward Amendment 36 showed 55 percent of respondents opposed and 38 percent in favor. But the Survey USA poll questioned only 513 prospective voters and nobody is counting the proposal out yet.

While both sides invoke high-minded civic arguments about the pros and cons of the Electoral College, naked political calculations are motivating many activists on the issue.

Many of the biggest supporters of Amendment 36 have been Democrats, who began working to get the proposal on the ballot back when it looked as though their traditionally Republican state would again vote decisively for President Bush. Although the Colorado Democratic Party is officially neutral on the ballot proposition, political analysts believe the idea was to find a way to deprive Bush of all nine of Colorado's electoral votes and shift a few to Kerry.

The opposition, meanwhile, has been led by state Republicans, who dislike the amendment for precisely the same reason.

Close race changes dynamic

Yet the dynamic of the presidential contest in Colorado has turned those assumptions upside down. Polls indicate a much closer race than anyone had predicted, meaning Kerry actually has a chance to capture the state. If he does and if Amendment 36 also passes, the new law would end up backfiring on its Democratic supporters by forcing their candidate to share the state's electoral prize with Bush.

Ron Tupa, a Democratic state senator from Boulder and prominent backer of Amendment 36, said he is untroubled by that prospect.

"I support Amendment 36 based on a higher principle," said Tupa, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill in the state legislature in 2001 to change Colorado's electoral vote apportionment. "I'm not looking at the Electoral College math and saying this amendment will somehow or other hurt the Democratic Party. I take my partisan hat off when I work on this issue."

Calls to abolish or reform the Electoral College escalated after the 2000 election, which highlighted a rare instance in which the winner of the popular vote, Gore, was not also the winner in the Electoral College. That had happened only three times before, all in the 19th Century.

Under the Electoral College system, devised at birth of the republic as a compromise between state and federal powers, each state gets one electoral vote for each of its two senators and one for each of its representatives in the House. Only two states--Maine and Nebraska--do not use a winner-take-all formula to determine their electoral votes. Those two states give the statewide winner two votes and the rest to the winner in each congressional district.

Critics of the Electoral College believe it is outdated, confusing and ultimately discouraging to voters, whose ballots do not directly elect a president.

"Right now, it seems like a very large number of people are missing out on the democratic process of electioneering," said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. "They live in safely red [shorthand for Republican] or safely blue [Democratic] states, and they never see a presidential candidate."

Arguments for college

But supporters of the status quo argue that the Electoral College continues to serve a vital balancing function between smaller and larger states, ensuring that a successful presidential candidate must have national appeal. If all electoral votes were apportioned according to the popular vote or if the Electoral College were eliminated, the largest states could end up choosing the president and smaller states wouldn't matter, experts say.

Even some who favor Electoral College reform think it would be better for Congress to orchestrate a change, rather than attempt it piecemeal.

"It's terrible to do it state by state," said Robert Hardaway, a law professor at the University of Denver and Electoral College expert. "Let's say this passes in Colorado. Then Republicans in California [where Democrats tend to win the presidential contests] will want to get their share of electoral votes, so they will try this. And then Democrats in Texas will want to get a shot, so they will try it. Some will pass, some won't, but the result will be a non-uniform hodgepodge of systems."

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