Forget Florida, Colorado May Supply Election Drama This Year

Voters deciding on a measure that could split state's electoral votes.

If you thought the Sunshine State's 2000 election cliffhanger — with cries of voter disenfranchisement, ballot mishaps and a 537-vote margin that threw the election into the Supreme Court — had all the stuff of a made-for-TV movie, hold on to your seats; a ballot proposition in Colorado could make for a compelling sequel.

The debate centers on Amendment 36, which would award Colorado's nine electoral votes proportionally rather than winner-take-all. Candidates would divide the electoral votes based on the number of popular votes each receives.

One thing that makes this initiative so contentious is that if it passes on November 2, the redistribution would be effective immediately and would split up the state's votes between George W. Bush and John Kerry. If Amendment 36 had been Colorado law in 2000, five of the state's then eight votes would've gone to Bush and three to Al Gore, instead of all eight to Bush. If all other electors had voted as they did in 2000, neither man would have received the 270 electoral votes needed to win, throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

Katy Atkinson, director of Coloradoans Against a Really Stupid Idea, says this proposition would dilute the state's impact on presidential elections, as the state's partisan split would almost certainly be 5-4, resulting in a net vote of one. And a state with just one electoral vote holds little political power, thus suffering when it comes to winning favors in federal legislation. "All other things being equal, if Colorado has one electoral vote and Arizona has 10, we're going to come out on the losing side," Atkinson said.

Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization that endorses disbanding the Electoral College, disputes that argument. "Having one electoral vote in play is more than some states," Richie said, referring to states that are traditionally "blue" (Democrat) or "red" (Republican) and, thus, largely ignored by both candidates.

Atkinson calls the Colorado ballot measure "mischievous," because it was initiated by an Arizona-based group and heavily funded by a wealthy California Democrat. Critics immediately cried foul, accusing Democrats of a power play to grab votes for Kerry.

She asserted there is bipartisan opposition — Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar has spoken against the measure. Many Democrats backed the ballot initiative when it seemed Bush would carry Colorado, but as the race has tightened, support has waned. Some Kerry supporters say they'd favor keeping Colorado winner-take-all if he has a real chance to carry the state.

Atkinson maintains that the matter shouldn't be left up to the states. "If we want to change the Electoral College, that debate has to take place on the national level," she said, adding that she's seen no proof that winner-take-all is a problem.

Richie said he believes Colorado could serve as the model for a larger, national plan, but he remains cautious, wary that such a system in a several states could significantly disrupt the Electoral College system and leave presidential selection in the hands of the Supreme Court or Congress.

Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois introduced legislation last week to amend the Constitution and replace the Electoral College with direct election of the president. Previous attempts have failed to pass both houses of Congress, the first step in amending the Constitution.

Initial public opinion polls in Colorado showed majority support for Amendment 36, but as Election Day nears, a poll last week by the Denver Post showed 44 percent opposed, 35 percent in favor. Twenty-one percent remained undecided. Given those numbers, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli believes the amendment will fail and is unlikely to be reintroduced on future ballots.

Even if it passes, a legal battle is all but guaranteed. Opponents have already begun planning court cases against the amendment, on grounds that voters on November 2 will have cast ballots without knowing how the electoral votes would be distributed.

Richie said a drop in approval ratings reflects political reality. "It is not going to lose because people [favor] the current system," he said. "It's going to lose because of partisan strategy."

The decision is in the hands of Colorado voters, but the results will not be certified by the state for several days after the election; if the national race is as close as it was four years ago, Americans may be spending a few days on the edge of their seats.