Over the last two centuries, there have been more than 700 attempts to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. In fact, there have been more proposals for constitutional amendments to change the Electoral College than on any other subject. All have failed.
So reformers are now trying a new tack, taking advantage of the fact that the Constitution leaves it to the states to decide how to allocate their electoral votes. (A state's electoral votes equals its number of congressional districts plus its two Senators. Ohio, for example, has 18 Congressmen and two Senators, so it has 20 electoral votes.)
All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) currently use a "winner take all" system, awarding all the state's electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes statewideregardless of whether the candidate wins the state by a landslide or a razor-thin margin. To win the presidency, a candidate needs at least 270 electoral votesa majority of the 538 total.
There are currently two proposals being considered, with a possible change in California having the potential to directly affect the outcome of the 2008 election.
In California, the state Republican Party is trying to change the way the state apportions its 55 electoral votes: Instead of winner-take-all, electoral votes would be allotted by congressional districta shift that is likely to benefit the Republican candidate. The proposal's supporters must collect 400,000 signatures by November 29 to get the proposal on the state's primary ballot next June.
National Popular Vote Plan
Another proposal would effectively make the Electoral College irrelevant: Under what is known as the National Popular Vote plan, states would agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than to the candidate who wins in their state. This would, in effect, mean electing the President by popular vote, but without formally abolishing the Electoral College, which requires amending the Constitution.
Maryland recently became the first state to sign on to the plan, which would take effect only if states representing a majority of the 538 electoral votes adopt the proposal. At least 43 other states are considering the idea.
"The idea of the states banding together and being able to set the rules of the game to directly elect the President is a new idea," says Pete Maysmith of Common Cause, a group that advocates a national popular vote. "And I think it is grabbing people's attention and gaining momentum."
So why are people always trying to change, or get rid of, the Electoral College? Most of the time, the electoral vote and the popular vote produce the same resultthe most recent exception being the 2000 election, when Al Gore won the popular vote (50,996,116 to 50,456,169) but President Bush eked out an Electoral College victory (271-266, after the Supreme Court effectively awarded Florida's then-25 votes to Bush). But many people are as concerned about the Electoral College's impact on the campaign as on the election itself.
Because most states have a large majority of either Democrats or Republicans, the winner-take-all system means that some states, like California, will reliably go Democratic, while others, like Texas, will vote Republican. There are only about a dozen states where both parties are competitive and it's in these "battleground states" (see map) that candidates focus their attention; the rest of the country is largely ignored.
George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, says many voters are weary of a system in which "candidates focus on 13 or 14 states and no other states get attention, except for fund-raising."
The California proposal is significant because the state has more electoral votes than any other state, and has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. But California has many areas with strong Republican majorities, and allocating electoral votes by congressional district might shift as many as 20 electoral votes into the Republican column.
Preventing a Democratic Win?
"It would make it impossible for a Democrat to win the White House" in a tight race, predicts Republican consultant Steve Schmidt.
Robert Ritchie, executive director of FairVote, opposes the California proposal because it would make it much more likely that the winner of the nationwide popular vote is someone other than the winner of the electoral vote. "It makes one of the weaknesses of the current system worse," he says.
If the California plan takes effect, other states might also consider changing how they allot their electoral votes. (Democrats in North Carolina considered the idea, but have tabled it.)
Both of these proposalswhich could radically change the political landscape or, just as easily, completely wash outhave added a generous dose of unpredictability to an already wide-open election.