Making Every Vote Count Would Be a Tricky Proposition


Nearly 4.6 million Californians voted for George W. Bush in 2000. But their votes utterly had no effect on the outcome of the presidential election.

The same was true of 2.4 million Texans who voted for Al Gore, 2.4 million New Yorkers who backed Bush, and most dramatically, 2,912,253 Floridians who chose Gore. All of them might as well have stayed in bed.

The reason is the way almost all states allocate their votes in the Electoral College. All but two states now award their Electoral College votes on a winner-takes-all basis to the candidate who captures the most popular votes in the state.


Win by one vote or 1 million -- or, as in the case of Florida, 537 -- it doesn’t matter: in almost every state, the winner pockets every available Electoral College vote. And since Bush fell short in California and New York, just as Gore did in Texas and Florida, the millions of votes they attracted there did them no good at all.

Colorado voters next month will decide whether to change that equation for their nine Electoral College votes. They will vote on a ballot initiative to allocate the state’s Electoral College votes in proportion to each candidate’s share of the popular vote.

If one candidate beats the other, by say, 55% to 45%, the winner would receive five Electoral College votes rather than nine. In fact, the state would probably divide five to four almost always: under the system, it would require a 61% landslide in the popular vote to win the sixth Electoral College vote.

No other state does anything like this. Maine and Nebraska, the only two states without a winner-takes-all system, allocate their Electoral College votes to the winner in each of their congressional districts, with two more to the statewide winner.

But the proportional allocation idea has been discussed intermittently for more than a century. After the disputed presidential election of 1876 (when Rutherford B. Hayes won the White House despite losing the popular vote), a House committee approved a constitutional amendment to apply a proportional system to all the states. In 1950, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. actually steered such a constitutional amendment through the Senate. But the idea died in the House.

Historically, the best argument for the proportional system has been that it makes every vote valuable, since every ballot would affect the candidates’ ability to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required for election. The modern era’s polarization has added another justification. Today, most voters never see the candidates because their states are safely in either the blue or red column. A proportional system would give candidates the incentive to campaign even in states they are sure to lose.


“On a national basis it means you have to campaign everywhere, and ultimately that brings us together,” says Rick Ridder, a veteran Democratic consultant directing the pro-amendment campaign.

The idea hasn’t done anything to bring together the parties in Colorado. Local Republicans mostly view it as a plot to swipe some of the state’s electoral votes for John F. Kerry; Republican Gov. Bill Owens is leading the campaign against it. Many rank-and-file Democrats were initially attracted, but as Kerry has closed in polls here against Bush, more are expressing ambivalence.

Owens’ case is less philosophical than practical. Because the state would almost always split its Electoral College votes five to four, Owens argues, Colorado would lose influence in federal spending to states that could offer the president a bigger prize.

That argument seems a bit overheated. Colorado would still have seven members of Congress to defend its interests. With the country so closely split, candidates couldn’t write off even one or two Electoral College votes in Colorado. Besides, if one party considers all nine Colorado votes in its pocket, both have little incentive to court voters there anyway.

A better question is philosophical: Does the country want to establish the precedent of proportional representation? If the initiative passes, the sponsors -- a somewhat murky nonprofit organization associated with liberal donors called The People’s Choice for President -- are likely to push the idea elsewhere. Republicans could counter by mounting proportional initiatives in Democratic-leaning states such as California.

If the idea spread, it would increase the risk that no candidate would reach a majority in the Electoral College. That’s because proportional representation makes it much easier for third-party candidates to capture some Electoral College votes.


In that way, the system could force the major party contenders to cut European-style power-sharing deals with figures such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader to obtain enough of their Electoral College votes to reach 270, said Texas A&M; political scientist George C. Edwards III. Many Americans probably won’t find that prospect very attractive.

That’s a long-term risk. In the short term, the idea presents an enormous wild card because, as written, it applies to this year’s presidential election.

That provision alone ensures that if the initiative passes, “there is a flat-out guarantee it will end up in court,” said Katy Atkinson, a Republican political consultant leading the campaign against it. The Constitution empowers state Legislatures to decide how to allocate their Electoral College votes. But it’s uncertain whether that power could be passed to voters through an initiative. And even if it could, it’s not clear the initiative could legally change the system for this year’s vote.

If the race between Bush and Kerry remains tight, the difference between winning nine or five votes in Colorado could determine whether one of them reaches a majority. And that means the nation once again could be waiting for a president while the courts decided whether the Colorado initiative could stand.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at