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Dropping out of college

Would popular vote elections change the way America chooses presidents?
/ Source: National Journal

The rise of and suggests one thing: Almost as much as voters want an end to the Iraq war and economic troubles, they're seeking to end the bitter partisanship that has gripped the capital for the past several decades. Or at least they say they are. But while Obama and McCain make enticing promises to move toward a "new era," whatever that may be, John Koza thinks he has a better idea: A relatively obscure plan called the National Popular Vote initiative, which would effectively eliminate the Electoral College.

Koza, a consulting professor at Stanford University and former board game creator, believes the move would dramatically transform politics by changing the way candidates talk to voters and parties shape ideologies. It would expand the presidential campaign from the small pool of battleground states, he said, into a coast-to-coast dialogue that involves nearly everyone.

"People don't realize how concentrated the presidential campaign has become," Koza said this week. "They've heard the phrase 'battleground states'. But they don't realize that 99 percent of campaigns' money is spent in just 16 states and more than two-thirds in six states. It's shocking. The tilt is enormous."

The current system of electing presidents through the Electoral College forces candidates to curry favor with voters in a small number of battleground states and focus on the local issues that help candidates in that handful of states, Koza said. In 2004, for example, more money was spent on political ads in Florida alone than in 46 other states and Washington, D.C.

"The other states are neglected, so candidates in other [downballot] races are diminished," he said. "The majority parties in those states become more and more entrenched, and the minority parties become weaker. And the presidential campaign becomes more and more vicious in the fraction of states that are left."

Under the NPV initiative, a state would give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This would be legal because the Constitution grants states the right to decide how to cast their electoral votes, so no congressional or federal approval would be required. The NPV initiative would take effect nationwide as soon as enough states pass it (enough states to tally 270 electoral votes, the magic number needed to elect a president).

Sounds crazy? Kinda. But it's gaining ground. This year, NPV bills are expected to be introduced in all 50 states. Already, 44 states have done so and governors in Maryland and New Jersey (both Democrats) have signed bills into law. A nearly identical bill awaits the governor's signature in Illinois, the country's fifth-largest state, which received little attention from the major-party presidential candidates in 2004.

Supporters say it can -- and will -- work. "I'm bullish about it being in place by 2012," said Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit FairVote in suburban Washington. "It's a lot like Dorothy and her ruby slippers; we've had this power to change things all along, and we hadn't realized it."

"Unfortunately, we've settled into this partisan world we live in," Richie added. "Right now, candidates have no incentives to find out what most voters think in most parts of the country. [Under the new law], candidates would be forced to compete everywhere and listen to everyone."

Jamin Raskin, a Maryland state senator and American University law professor, who shepherded the bill through Annapolis last year, said the major challenge he faced was convincing his colleagues that it was an issue voters would care about. "They said it was too complex a subtext for people to really grasp," he said. "But if you can get people to have a 10-minute conversation about it, you can explain both why the Electoral College is flawed and why this is an excellent solution. We need to have a presidential election in which every citizen's vote counts, and counts equally."

But some observers, including University of Virginia professor and national political analyst Larry Sabato, are highly skeptical of the plan.

"Not going to happen," Sabato said.

"Supporters have had some early success, but as you creep toward the 'reality moment,' it becomes extremely difficult because Americans are remarkably cautious when it comes to their Constitution," he added. "They're ferocious in defending the status quo."

Sabato said the NPV is flawed because it would elevate the popular vote, no matter how close and disputed it may be, over the system of federalism in the Electoral College, which guarantees that candidates pay attention to smaller states. "It just means that candidates would focus more on population centers," he said.

So, is there a better way to reduce the levels of partisanship, which routinely rank high among voters' biggest frustrations with Washington?

Yes, Sabato said. And it's happening right now on the campaign trail. "The parties should nominate candidates with cross-party appeal, which may be precisely what they're doing this year," he said, referring to Obama and McCain. "The parties themselves can do that, and they'll make more states competitive when they do."