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Changing the system

To this very moment, the Electoral College system works as intended, making it necessary for today’s candidates and national parties — especially when voter loyalties are so evenly divided — to visit and address issues of concern to states even as electorally “tiny” as five-vote Nevada.

Those who want to be rid of the Electoral College could always seek a constitutional amendment. But some now think they’ve now found an easier end run around this “outmoded relic.”

Maryland last year became the first state to approve a “national popular vote” compact that would allocate all of its 10 electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide, rather than to the candidate who garners the most votes in the state.

New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois have since followed suit and passed laws that would allot their collective 40 electoral votes the same way. Identical bills are moving in Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island, which have a total of 62 electoral votes.

Sponsors say the measures would take effect only when states that collectively command at least 270 electoral votes pass identical measures — that being the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Under the current system, candidates have no reason to poll, visit or pay attention to the concerns of states where registrations so favor one of the two major parties that they’re not “in play,” objects Barry F. Fadem, president of the National Popular Vote, the California-based group angling to persuade state legislatures to sign the sovereignty suicide pledge.

But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among three Republican governors who have vetoed such a bill when it landed on their desks. In his veto message, Gov. Schwarzenegger noted the plan “disregards the will of a majority of Californians,” pointing out that the state’s electoral votes under the new system could be awarded to a candidate most Californians didn’t vote for.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle voiced a similar objection as she vetoed the bill twice. (This year, lawmakers overrode her objection.) Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas last month also rejected the measure, saying it would decrease the influence of small states such as Vermont.

John Samples, director of the Cato’s Center for Representative Government in Washington, D.C., calls the National Popular Vote campaign a “novel gimmick,” warning it’s “asking for a mess” if enacted.

What if a state’s voters file suit after they see the results, complaining their own state’s majority has been disenfranchised? Would the courts step in?

Or what if the electors fail to act as directed, which has happened 156 times in history?

Gary Gregg II, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and a fan of the Electoral College, agrees the “National Popular Vote” would change the way candidates campaign, and not in a good way. Candidates would be drawn to the cities like rats. “Rural areas would never see a presidential candidate. Small states would never see a presidential candidate,” Mr. Gregg predicts.

Calls to reform or abolish the Electoral College grew louder after the 2000 presidential election, when former Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote, but didn’t have enough votes in the right states to carry the Electoral College.

“It’s not a partisan issue. This isn’t about electing a Democrat president, but electing a president democratically,” contends Maryland Democratic state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who introduced the measure there.

But the California Legislature — any state legislature — is perfectly free to vote tomorrow to award that state’s electoral votes by congressional district (bestowing the two additional votes to the candidate who wins the statewide majority) as Maine and Nebraska already do.

Candidates might still avoid San Francisco (which wouldn’t vote Republican if an enemy fleet were steaming into the bay) and Orange County (which wouldn’t vote Democratic if so instructed by the ghosts of John Wayne and Charlton Heston). But plenty of the Golden State’s other districts would be in play, overnight. So why don’t they try that?

Unless, of course, they like an “always-blue” California just fine, and are only frustrated that the rest of the map refuses to fall into line.

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