Alaska editorial: Alaskans differ over Electoral College

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2004

This editorial appeared in the Nov. 10 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

As the nation waited on Election Day to see whether Ohio would fall to President Bush or to Sen. John Kerry, political analysts and historians began asking what they had asked following the 2000 election: Could it be time for the nation to decide if the Electoral College should be modified or eliminated?

The issue should be of great interest to small electoral states such as Alaska, because proponents of changing the method of presidential election list among their complaints the disproportionate Electoral College allocation given to lightly populated states. Alaska finds itself among the states that presently have the minimum number of electors possible, three, with the others being Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. The District of Columbia also has three. At the top end, California has 55 electoral votes.

The concerns about the Electoral College, which is established in the U.S. Constitution and was the subject of the 12th Amendment in 1804, are many and are illustrated clearly in Alaska.

First, it's true that Alaska's Electoral College allocation is three times what it would be if the allocation were based on population. Alaska would have one elector under that scenario, which, using today's U.S. population total, would have each elector representing just under 550,000 people. Critics of the college argue also that small states are already overrepresented elsewhere in government by having two senators, the same number as the most-populous states.

Second, there was no denying in this election that Alaskans who had decided against voting for President Bush were not going to have their vote count for anything but principle. Alaska and its three electoral votes had long ago been put in the column of the Republican candidate, as they had been in 2000, 1996, 1992 and every preceding election except 1964, when the state voted for President Johnson.

Similar outcomes were recorded in other Republican strongholds: Utah, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma are but a few. It was the reverse in Democratic sureties - California, New York and Massachusetts, among others - where resident Republicans could only hope, much like Alaska Democrats, that some extraordinary event would make their vote matter.

And third, as a result of Alaska's consistent Republican leaning, residents see virtually nothing of the major party candidates.

Imagine the past two presidential elections but without the Electoral College. Rather than the long campaign steadily being reduced from 10 or so swing states to half a dozen and then to a determination that whoever wins two out of Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio will prevail, candidates would have to continually look for votes across the land, including Alaska.

Perhaps that is why, way back on Feb. 7, 1950, this newspaper endorsed a constitutional amendment that would have retained the Electoral College but required that each state allocate its electors based on the proportion of the popular vote in that state. That would prevent the occurrence, which has afflicted the nation three times now, of having a president who lost the popular vote but had the greater number of electoral votes.

The newspaper wrote that the amendment, which failed, would "bring about much-need reform" to a system that is "outdated."

More recently, others have been calling for change.

Why is this worth being aware of now? Because with an electorate so divided, so entrenched in position, tight presidential elections remain a real possibility for several presidential cycles to come. And it is entirely possible the problem of an electoral and popular vote imbalance will lead to further calls for change.

The Alaska Legislature, however, made its position clear in 2001 when it overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking that the electoral system remain in its present form.

Other Alaskans will disagree, to be sure. And at the center of the debate, perhaps never to be answered, is this question: Should every vote count, even though it is being counted?

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