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Robert Bennett: Pros and cons of electoral college

Published: Monday, Oct. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

During the Constitutional Convention, the delegates had to determine how the president should be chosen. In several fairly close votes, it was determined that he should be elected by the Legislative branch.

However, having the Congress choose the president would undermine the doctrine of separation of power and make the president politically dependent on Congressional favor. Few were satisfied with this method but none could think of anything else to do.

Finally, as the Convention was nearing its end, James Madison had an idea. Let's have each state chose "electors" to chose the president, giving each state as many as the number of its representatives in Congress, counting both Senators and House members. (That gives the large states the biggest voice in the initial choice, making them happy.)

If someone got a majority of these electoral votes, he would be the president and that would be that. However, if no one did, the top five names on the list of those receiving votes (In the 12th Amendement, which added specific electoral votes for vice president, the number was lowered to three) would go to the House of Representatives, where, with each state having an equal vote, one of the five would be chosen. (That gives the small states equal power in the final choice, making them happy.) With both large and small states now happy, the Electoral College was born.

There has only been one time when the system worked as Madison envisioned. With the rise of a two party system and popular voting, state legislatures used their power to chose electors who automatically voted for the candidate who won the popular vote in their states. Thus, it is possible — and happened, in 2000 — for a national candidate to win the national popular vote but lose the electoral vote. Campaign managers know this very well and tailor their campaigns accordingly.

Now there is a group that wants to change that. The National Popular Vote has come up with a way to do it that uses the power the Constitution gives to state legislatures to determine how electors are chosen.

The movement would have state legislatures require that their electors vote for the candidate who won the most votes in the nation rather than the one who won the most votes in their state. If enough states whose aggregate electoral vote exceeded 270 votes adopted this approach — 270 elects the President — that would mean that the electoral votes of the other states would be meaningless. We would have changed from the Electoral College system to direct election of the president without amending the Constitution.

That would change the nature of campaigns in a very fundamental way. Utah, instead of being a "flyover" state, ignored by both parties because the electoral vote outcome is well known in advance, would see more attention being paid to it as additional votes in Utah would be as important in the national total as additional votes in Ohio or Pennsylvania — "battleground" states on the Electoral College map. In the last election, turnout in battleground states was 7 percent higher than in flyover states. Utah, which once led the nation in voter turnout, is now one of the lowest; knowing that one's vote really counted could turn that trend around.

Or not. One of the reasons that Al Gore got more popular votes than Bush in 2000 is that Bush left California and New York uncontested, allowing Gore to run up the popular vote in places where that made no difference. Bush put his resources into carrying West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, where the media market was cheaper. Going to direct election could mean campaigns ignore the small markets even more than now.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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