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Stanford professor stumps for electoral alternative
San Francisco Chronicle


July 28, 2006

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A Stanford University computer science professor has come up with an idea to circumvent the more than 200-year-old Electoral College system and institute a national popular vote to elect the president of the United States. The proposal by John Koza, who also invented the scratch-off lottery ticket, is receiving serious consideration by lawmakers in several states. Legislators in California, New York, Colorado, Illinois and Missouri have sponsored bills to enact such a plan.

Koza's scheme calls for an interstate compact that would require states to throw all of their electoral votes behind the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of which candidate wins in each state. The plan doesn't require all 50 states to join, but a combination of states that represent a majority (at least 270) of the electoral votes. If the largest states join in the agreement, only 11 would be needed.




Supporters say the proposal would avoid such controversial results as the 2000 presidential election when Republican George W. Bush was declared the winner despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore, a Democrat. There were three other instances in the history of the United States - 1824, 1876 and 1888 - when the winner of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College vote.

Proponents say Koza's proposal is ingenious because it would avoid the immensely difficult task of trying to get rid of the Electoral College system by amending the U.S. Constitution.

Koza, who co-wrote a 620-page book detailing why it's time to change the system and how his plan would work, said his goal for this year was to let his ideas germinate with hopes of catching the attention of some state lawmakers. But the proposal caught on faster than expected.

In Sacramento, a bill by Assemblyman Tom Umberg has cleared the state Assembly on a largely partisan vote and gained approval in a state Senate policy committee, a positive sign that it may pass the Senate as well. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the governor has not taken an official position on the bill.

"I think that the Electoral College no longer serves a useful purpose," Umberg said. "I think direct election of the president by the citizens of the U.S. is a better way to go."

Assemblyman Mike Villines, however, argues that a national popular vote is a bad idea that would force presidential campaigns to focus only on large urban areas such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

And that explains why five Republican lawmakers in New York have sponsored a bill in that state, he said.

"I think it really hurts the (election) process and, to me, I think it disenfranchises a lot of voters," he said.

Still, in other states like Colorado and Illinois, Koza's idea have found bipartisan support.

"We were surprised that this would happen so quickly," Koza said.

Critics argue that there is nothing wrong with the current system of U.S. citizens voting for a slate of electors who in turn cast the actual ballot to elect the president.

"I don't see any reason to change the Electoral College system," said John Pitney Jr., professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. "After the 2000 elections, there was a dispute of what happened in Florida, but people didn't seem too concerned afterward. Most Americans see the outcome as legitimate."

The Electoral College has been part of the U.S. presidential election process since the very beginning. It was conceived as a compromise between election by the Congress, which the Founding Fathers thought would give lawmakers too much control over the president, and direct election by U.S. citizens.

Each state has one elector for each of its representatives in the U.S. House and Senate. When voters go to the polls, they are in fact picking the electors who actually choose the candidate.

Currently, all but Maine and Nebraska have instituted the winner-take-all system, meaning 48 states - including California - award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who has won their state's popular vote. Maine and Nebraska award their electoral votes according to the results in each congressional district. Colorado attempted to go down a similar route in 2004, but voters rejected the idea.

Koza, a registered Democrat who served as an elector in 1992 and 2000, claims the current system also has resulted in presidential campaigns largely ignoring states that heavily favor a particular party or candidate. California, which has strongly supported Democratic candidates in recent presidential elections, has become a state that candidates only visit to conduct fundraisers, he said.

"The main thing wrong with the current system is that two-thirds of the states are left out from the whole system ... because a (presidential) candidate has no reason to campaign in those states where they are way ahead or way behind," said Koza, 63, who lives in Los Altos Hills. "It's not just whose baby gets kissed in which campaign, it means that, for example, California issues such as Pacific Rim issues, high tech, California's agriculture don't get addressed."

Koza said he believes a direct popular vote is the answer.

However, getting rid of the Electoral College by amending the U.S. Constitution would not be an easy task. It requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress as well as acceptance by three-fourths of the states.

So, rather than eliminating the Electoral College system, Koza is proposing to use two provisions in the Constitution to circumvent the system: interstate compacts and the states' power to decide how they award their electoral votes.

While many political scientists say this is a legally viable way to institute a national popular vote without amending the Constitution, finding enough states to jump on board will be difficult.

"In terms of the likelihood of this actually happening, I think it's pretty slim, considering many of the states have vastly different political leanings," said Nancy Martorano, an assistant political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "I just don't think states like Texas and California will ever enter into any sort of interstate compact."


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