In the middle of a contentious election, in the fourth year of an administration that didn't win the popular vote, in an era of ennui, this is probably the worst possible time to ask one of the hardest questions of our political life. But that is also why this question cannot be avoided:
Should the Electoral College survive in its current form, or at all?
This question cannot be avoided anywhere in the United States, but especially not in Colorado, where voters this autumn will determine whether the state's electoral votes should be distributed proportionally _ a proposal that has the potential of changing political life as we know it.
It's too bad that the Colorado ballot question is so silly and, ultimately, so self-defeating because the broader issue _ how we choose our president and whether a vote in Pittsburgh, Pa., is worth the same as a vote in Pittsburg, N.H. _ forces us to ask serious, fundamental and often disquieting questions about our political system. Because as much as we say that this is a nation where the people's choices rule, there are times when the people's choices are obscured.
One of them, of course, was four years ago, when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote, then lost the Electoral College after a Supreme Court ruling in the Florida controversy. It has happened four other times in American history, all of them in the 19th century.
These quirks of democracy occur in a system in which electoral votes are distributed by states that generally award them in a winner-take-all manner. There are two exceptions, Nebraska and Maine, where the electoral votes are distributed by congressional district _ exceptions that, by the way, have not yet been invoked. The current system sometimes deprives the majority of its chance to rule, skewing the meaning of democracy, and it almost always deprives many voters of the chance to make a difference in a presidential election, skewing the purity of our politics and the nature of presidential campaigns.
If you live in Texas, for example, you're not likely to get much attention this fall, as the Democrats know they have no chance of taking the state and won't waste any resources there. Kerry would rather spend a few precious campaign hours in Des Moines, in heavily contested Iowa, than in Dallas, which while far bigger is in devoutly Republican Texas. And President Bush would rather touch down in Cincinnati, in the prized state of Ohio, than in any city in New York, a larger state but one he will lose by more than a million votes.
There are lots of ways to change the way presidents are elected, but the proposal being considered in Colorado would have the perverse result of making the state less relevant, not more relevant. Right now the two campaigns are fighting fiercely over Colorado's nine electoral votes; Bush took the state by 9 percentage points four years ago, but the Kerry campaign sees opportunity there.
If, however, the proposed proportional representation scheme were in effect, neither campaign would spend a moment there, except maybe to refuel on the way east. Barring a landslide, chances are that the state would distribute its nine votes by giving five to one candidate and four to the other. The marginal advantage is one measly electoral vote. Better to spend time fighting over West Virginia, which at least gives the winner a four-vote bump.
"Bush could return and promise to pave every wilderness area, require high school graduates to recite Leviticus, ban mass transportation, invade Iran and Syria simultaneously, and otherwise please certain Coloradans _ and he'd be unlikely to pick up another electoral vote," former newspaper editor Ed Quillen wrote in the Denver Post this week. "Just about any way you cut it, Colorado's electoral vote would be split 5-4, and all the campaigning would be about that vote."
In the cool light of reason (and that cool light is found only in off-election years, preferably many decades after a contested election), many people believe the Electoral College is an idea whose time has come and gone.
But it may never be gone.
That's because there will always be a party, or an interest or a political figure who will see opportunity in the peculiarities of the system. For the foreseeable future, for example, Democrats in California wouldn't support junking it, while Republicans would. In Texas, Republicans would oppose replacing it, but Democrats support it. And the opponents will inevitably wrap themselves in the old arguments of the sanctity of the states and will, disingenuously or not, summon arguments about the prerogatives of the smaller states. Political bedfellows sometimes are strange indeed. But so, too, is the system we have.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.