Group Works To Weaken Electoral College Process

Members of the Electoral College are meeting around the country Monday to make Barack Obama's election official. Obama's margin of victory has made the process free of controversy, but that hasn't always been the case with the Electoral College.

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In every state of the union, the Electoral College meets today to elect the new president of the United States. This year, there's no controversy because Barack Obama won a clear majority of the popular vote and the electoral vote. Three times since the Civil War, there has been a difference between the two, most recently in 2000 when the Electoral College awarded the presidency to George W. Bush who lost the popular vote. That prompted calls for getting rid of the Electoral College, as NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

MARA LIASSON: As a political institution, the Electoral College may seem antique, but it's actually the only constitutionally prescribed method for choosing an American president. Today in state houses all over the country, electors were meeting to cast their votes. Here's how it sounded in Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois.

(Soundbite of Electoral College meetings)

Unidentified Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen, as they come from the back of the room, please welcome Indiana's electors and the alternate electors.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: OK. We, the undersigned, duly elected electors for the State of Iowa for the president and vice president of the United States do hereby certify that...

Unidentified Woman: ...has counted the ballots. It is my pleasure to announce that the United States senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, has received 21 electoral votes for president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: And so, with today's ritual, Barack Obama was formally chosen as the 44th president of the United States. Many people think the electoral system is fundamentally undemocratic, and they want it abolished. But it's hard to amend the Constitution outright, so Electoral College opponents came up with a simpler plan. Get states that together had a majority of the electoral votes to pass laws awarding their electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. Rob Richie is the executive director of a group called FairVote, and he says there's a way to keep track of his group's progress.

Mr. ROB RICHIE (Executive Director, FairVote): Every summer of a presidential year, you can look at the number of states that have passed the plan. And if at any point, it has hit the majority number, currently 270, then that election is going to be governed by a national popular vote because the winner of the national popular vote is guaranteed to get that whole entire block of electoral votes.

LIASSON: And voila, without actually abolishing the Electoral College, it would, in effect, be neutered. So far, the FairVote movement is about one-fifth of the way toward its goal. Four states - New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, and Hawaii - have enacted the national popular vote bill. They represent about 20 percent of the 270 electoral votes it takes to win. All four are blue states, reflecting Democrats' anger about 2000. But Richie thinks now that a Democrat has won the White House, it may actually be easier for his group.

Mr. RICHIE: What 2000 did is that, at least for the eight years that George Bush has been in office, I think, created a partisan reaction to raising the issue where people assumed that that was the reason that you wanted to change it. And I think that once we have a new president that the debate can focus on what is it really doing for our country, and how does it affect people's ability to hold the president accountable?

LIASSON: Richie says there's another reason to abolish the Electoral College. It warps the way campaigns are run.

Mr. RICHIE: If you look at this year's election, more than 98 percent of all the campaign events and all the campaign spending on ads in the last two months of the campaign were in just 15 states, representing barely a third of the country.

LIASSON: If a candidate is trying to get 270 electoral votes awarded on a state-by-state winner-take-all basis, there's no point campaigning in states they're almost sure to win or states they're going to lose. So a small handful of swing states get all the attention every time. That would change and candidates would compete all over the map if individual voters, instead of state electors, determined the winner. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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