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The Electoral College System: arguments in favor from the United States

Oregon elector is firm believer in the system

by The Associated Press
The Seattle Times, Oct. 21, 2004

EUGENE, Ore.— In 54 days, seven Oregonians will meet to carry out one of the oldest American traditions when they cast the state's seven electoral votes. Four years ago, Eugene Democrat James Edmunson cast one of the seven for then-Vice President Al Gore. Despite winning a half-million more popular votes nationwide than George W. Bush, Gore ultimately lost the presidential election.

As Edmunson learned in 2000, what counts in America's electoral system is not winning the popular vote but prevailing in the Electoral College. Despite some changes through the years and hundreds of unsuccessful attempts to reform the system, the practice persists.

Still, Edmunson continues to favor the country's two-tiered voting system.

"If we went to using only the popular vote, candidates would stick to campaigning in the big states and probably ignore the smaller ones," said Edmunson, who served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1987 to 1994.

"With the Electoral College system, the less-populous states like Oregon have relatively more influence," he told The Register-Guard in Eugene. "This may be the only way to make sure all the states have a stake in a national election."

Smaller states enjoy proportionally more influence than larger ones when it comes to the Electoral College.

Each state, no matter how low its population, has two U.S. senators and at least one representative — and therefore, at least three votes in the Electoral College.

Oregon, with a population of nearly 3.6 million, has seven electors, or one per 514,000 people.

California has 35 million people and 55 electors, which works out to one per 636,000 people. Wyoming, the least-populated state in the country with a census of 500,000, nonetheless gets three electors, or one for every 167,000 people.

Washington state has 11 electoral votes.

Not everyone agrees that watching out for the smaller states is a good reason to keep the electoral system of electing presidents.

Critics like Ron Tammen, on the faculty of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, calls the Electoral College "antiquated."

"It was based on a premise that's no longer true," Tammen said. "The founding fathers had questions about participatory democracy; they worried that the passion of ordinary citizens wouldn't equate with wisdom."

In all but two states, the electoral system operates under yet another controversial principle: awarding electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis.

In 48 states, the presidential candidate who receives the largest number of popular votes, no matter how close, the result gets all of the state's electoral votes. The District of Columbia, which has three electoral votes, also follows the winner-take-all rule.

Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes according to results in their congressional districts. Colorado has an initiative on the ballot next month that would apportion its electoral votes to reflect the percentage of the popular vote won by each candidate.

Before each presidential election, qualifying political parties in each state choose their electors and send the lists to the Secretary of State's Office. Though no federal law requires electors to honor the result of the popular vote, some state laws do.

In others, including Oregon, each elector signs a notarized statement pledging not to cross party lines if called up to cast an electoral vote.

After voters cast their ballots in the general election, the party that wins the popular vote activates its slate of electors, who gather on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to vote in separate ballots for president and vice president.

In nearly all elections, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote also carried the Electoral College.

The exceptions include 1876, 1888 and 2000, when Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and George W. Bush, respectively, lost the popular vote but prevailed in the electoral vote.

The winning candidate must have 271 of the 538 possible electoral votes to become President.

Edmunson said he felt a surprising amount of emotion at participating in the Electoral College in 2000.

"I felt very much a part of history," Edmunson said. "I felt a connection to the framers of the Constitution, that I was actually living the history of my country. It was kind of like finding an old family photo in the attic and figuring out who these people were. It was thrilling."