Colorado as ground zero in debate over Electoral College

A ballot initiative in Colorado would shift the electoral vote distribution away from winner takes all.

The answer to a radical math equation here has become political.

The equation comes in the form of an amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot that would reconfigure the way Colorado's nine electoral votes are distributed. If passed, Amendment 36 could alter the results of the upcoming presidential race and fundamentally change the nature of presidential campaigns.

Under Amendment 36, the math would be awarded proportionately: If Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry wins 51 percent of Colorado's popular votes in the coming election, he would get five electoral votes. If Republican George Bush snags 49 percent, he would be awarded four.

Colorado's battle comes amid growing national debate about whether the Electoral College needs reform. The key catalyst: the 2000 election, when the results of the electoral and popular votes differed - albeit by narrow margins. How Colorado chooses could influence the momentum of that larger debate.

Reformers say a new system, along the lines of the Colorado referendum, would follow the principle that every vote counts. The popular and electoral votes would mirror one another with greater certainty. In turn, candidates would have greater incentive to wage nationwide campaigns rather than focusing closely on so-called swing states.

Opponents say the current system isn't broken, and that changing it could multiply the instances where election results become the subject of legal battles - as campaigns tussle over each narrowly decided electoral vote. And in Colorado's case, they say the current system ensures that presidential contenders pay attention to small states like theirs.

Winner-take-all is how Colorado and 47 other states now distribute their electoral votes, giving the presidential candidate with the majority of that state's popular vote all of the electoral votes. Electoral votes, in turn, directly elect the president.

Currently, only Maine and Nebraska partially split their electoral votes. The states allocate electoral votes to the winning party of each congressional district, with the overall winner securing an additional two votes statewide.

But Colorado's proposal would split all of its electoral votes, based on the popular vote. And in a battleground state that could have a significant impact.

"One electoral became pretty important [in 2000], and could be pretty important this year," notes Julie Brown, the campaign director for Amendment 36.

The Center for Voting and Democracy in Maryland, which opposes the winner-take-all system, welcomes at least the idea of Amendment 36. Center director Rob Richie points out, however, that with only Colorado pursuing a proposal to divide the electoral votes, the number of electoral votes at stake in that way on a national level remains relatively small.

He says he has greater concerns over the possibility that a handful of large states that lean Republican or Democratic - such as California, Texas, and New York - could switch to a proportional system while the rest of the states stay with winner take all. In that case, he worries, discrepancies between the popular vote and the electoral vote could widen.

"This is something that deserves national problem solving," says Richie.

Supporters of the amendment say that, in Colorado at least, a greater emphasis placed on the popular vote could draw more people to the polls. Another possible outcome is that presidential candidates would have to pay even closer attention to Colorado, which leans Republican, because its electoral votes would not be a foregone conclusion.

Amendment 36 may also empower third parties and encourage "minor-party candidates to pay more attention to Colorado issues, in the hopes of winning an electoral vote," according to the state voter guide.

In 1992, 40 percent of Coloradans voted for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Republican George H.W. Bush won 36 percent of the state's vote, and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot pulled in 23 percent. Mr. Clinton, however, won all of the state's electorals.

Political newspaper columnist Susan Barnes-Gelt opposes the amendment saying it will empower third parties to ill effect. Under the proposed amendment, Mr. Perot would have won one electoral vote.

"You want Ross Perot negotiating with whoever the president of the United States is going to be, with a place at the table?" she asks.

The voter guide, in listing the cons of Amendment 36, adds that, "By making it easier for minor-party candidates to win electoral votes in Colorado, the proposal could lead to a situation where no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote nationally."

Yet there is a contingency if that happens: The House of Representatives would choose the president, as it did in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1824.

Opponents of Amendment 36 say that dividing Colorado's electorals will actually drive presidential candidates away from the state who see no point in trying to win one electoral vote.

"Colorado is a state with a slight Republican majority, but which, nevertheless, has a longstanding tradition of electing Democrats to statewide and national office," wrote Gov. Bill Owens in an opinion piece for USA Today last month. "If Colorado split its electoral votes, leaving just one or two electoral votes in play, future presidential candidates - and presidents - would ignore Colorado and its interests in favor of states with more electoral clout."

Some call Amendment 36 a partisan ploy. Indeed, the head of the campaign is Denver Democratic consultant Rick Ridder. A leading proponent of the measure is Democratic state senator Ron Tupa, of Boulder.

"They [the Democrat and Republican parties] are both looking to win nine electorals," says Ms. Brown the Amendment 36 campaign director (and a Democrat), "and the people are looking to have their vote counted."

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