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Letters - Time to change how presidents are elected

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In 2008, Minnesota ranked No. 1 in the nation for voter turnout in the presidential election and will no doubt place highly in 2012 as well.

But despite decades of record participation and a well-educated, involved electorate, our fair state was mostly overlooked by both candidates in 2012.

This is due in large part to the role of the Electoral College in our elections, an antiquated institution that distorts our politics and bestows great power on a handful of states while leaving the majority largely ignored. Options for improvement abound, but one thing is clear: The time to reform the Electoral College has come.

Background

The Electoral College originated in compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 between those who believed Congress should elect the president and those who favored direct election by popular vote. It also was intended to help balance power between large and small states by granting each state a total number of votes equal to its net representation in Congress. By providing a system of electors chosen by the states, the Electoral College offered an elegant solution that was well suited to its time. But ours is no longer a nation of 4 million people in 13 small states on the Eastern Seaboard, and the solution has long since become a problem in itself.

Presidential politics are influenced by the Electoral College in many ways, the most obvious of which is the swing-state effect responsible for the modest attention paid to Minnesota in 2012.

While the candidates flocked to states where they saw their greatest opportunity to gain electoral votes in the winner-take-all contests, reliably Democratic Minnesota was an afterthought. This effect was especially evident in competitive Ohio, which drew seven times as many presidential campaign events as neighboring red state Indiana from January-September, and in Colorado, which saw 18 events compared with none in neighboring Nebraska and Utah and just one each in Kansas and Wyoming during those same months.

Another Electoral College byproduct is the disproportional representation it affords residents of less-populous states. Our smallest state, Wyoming, receives three electoral votes for its 568,000 residents, or one vote for each 189,000 people. By contrast, California's 38,000,000 residents are allocated 55 electoral votes, or one for each 678,500 people.

The overemphasis on small states often steers the national agenda away from issues that affect the most Americans -- such as urban affairs -- and toward issues specific to the smaller, more rural states, just as Iowa's position in the primary system forces candidates to emphasize farm policy in a nation where 98.5 percent of the citizens are not farmers.

The Electoral College also reinforces the two-party system. The winner-take-all rules mean that a vote for a third party candidate is effectively a vote for the candidate who takes the majority in the state; at best a third-party candidate can be a spoiler, diverting electoral votes from one candidate or the other. Worse yet, in the event of an electoral tie, the election is decided by the House of Representatives. Does anyone really want that dysfunctional, hyper-partisan body choosing the president?

The 'right' states

Perhaps most disconcerting, the Electoral College makes it possible to win the presidency with a minority of the popular vote simply by winning the "right" states, and in fact could conceivably lead to the election of a president who won less than 30 percent of the popular vote.

Options for reform abound. We could amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and elect the president by direct popular vote. We could allocate electors proportionally, rather than by winner-take-all. We could allocate them by congressional district. Or we might even consider instant runoff voting, which would allow voters to rank all candidates in order of preference, and allocate electors accordingly.

Any of these would be preferable to the status quo, a 225-year-old system that has been lambasted in public opinion polls for decades. It's time to say goodbye to the Electoral College and move on to an era where even the votes of the most reliable voters in the nation are counted -- and courted -- in every presidential election. -- Derek Larson for the St. Cloud Times

(This is the opinion of Derek Larson, who teaches history and environmental studies at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He welcomes your comments at twg@anderson-larson.net. His column is published the first Wednesday of the month.)

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