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Eye of the storm

Tom Boyd

Colorado seems to have a knack for making the national news.Since 1998 Colorado has played host to the 2002 wildfires, the Columbine massacre, Vail’s Two Elk arson fires, the rise to fame of Ryan and Trista, and most recently the Kobe Bryant rape case.But a new event looms on the horizon, one that is already focusing the eye of the world onto Colorado’s election, and one that, experts say, could create shock waves as big, if not bigger, than the state has seen in recent memory.Amendment 36, a proposal to change the way Colorado distributes its electoral votes, has earned headlines in newspapers and magazines from the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News to the New York Times, the Paris Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Newsweek.Newsweek columnist George F. Will even referred to the coming vote on Amendment 36 as, “November’s most portentous vote.”There’s only one group of people that don’t seem to know what the controversy is all about: Coloradans themselves.Amendment 36 is on this year’s ballot, and it proposes to split the state’s nine electoral votes proportionally among candidates based on the popular vote. For example: if Bush beats Kerry 52 percent to 48 percent in 2004, Bush would receive five electoral votes and Kerry would receive four. Amendment 36 would apply immediately to this year’s election and it could be very significant. In 2000, for example, such an amendment would have made Al Gore the President of the United States.But a recent Rocky Mountain News/News 4 poll found that more than half of respondents didn’t feel strongly for or against the measure. The majority of people polled said they were in favor of Amendment 36: the results came in at 47 percent ‘yes’ to 35 percent ‘no’. Eighteen percent were undecided.”Under the current winner-take-all system, somebody who only gets 40 percent of the vote gets all our electoral votes,” says Julie Brown, campaign director for Make Your Vote Count, which supports the measure. “The only argument opponents have is that they’re against democracy and I don’t imagine that polls very well.”Colorado is the right place to begin these kinds of reforms, Brown says. She points out that Colorado was the first state in the Union to allow women to vote (in 1893), was the first to enact sunset provisions, and was the first to enact term limits. The Electoral College, she said, has faced opposition ever since its inception in the 1830s.The Colorado movement to reform the Electoral College was initiated by Democratic state senator Ron Tupa in 2001. He and other advocates say Amendment 36 will make Coloradans’ votes count and elections more fair. It will reduce the chances, they say, of another election where a candidate wins the popular vote but fails to win the election.Right now Colorado follows a “unit rule,” which awards the winning candidate all nine of Colorado’s electoral votes. Electoral votes are based on population or, more accurately, they are based on the number of representatives each state sends to the federal legislative branch. Colorado currently has two Senators and seven Representatives in the U.S. congress.Nebraska and Maine are the exceptions to the rule: they employ a “proportional” method of distributing their electoral votes. Colorado is looking to establish a similar method and the effects could be decisive in the upcoming election.In 2000, for example, Colorado had eight Senators and Representatives, and George W. Bush won the votes from Colorado by a slim margin: 883,748 votes to Al Gore’s 738,227. With all eight of Colorado’s votes in his pocket, Bush could concentrate on winning Florida, which eventually required a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.If Amendment 36 passes, current polling numbers show that four, or conceivably five, of Colorado’s electoral votes could go to John Kerry.But Amendment 36 will have to do much more than pass it will have to withstand an intense amount of legal scrutiny from legal teams from both sides of the aisle and Colorado, not Florida, would become the central battleground state in the 2004 presidential election.”It would make the Kobe Bryant case look tiny in terms of media attention and stories and all the rest,” said University of Colorado professor of political science Kenneth Bickers. “But two things would have to happen: the election would have to be close and (Amendment 36) would have to pass.”And from there, says Bickers, things get even more complicated.Amendment 36 will, no doubt, suffer legal scrutiny if it passes. But if the election is close, and Colorado’s electoral votes prove decisive, then the legal battle will have to be settled in a very short time: Electors have to cast their votes by Dec. 13 which means Colorado (and ultimately, the nation) would be in limbo until the dispute were resolved.Like many court battles, this one would converge around the definition of one word: “legislature.”Article II of the U.S. Constitution states that: “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors” for president.It’s no mistake that Colorado was chosen as the state to wage this legal battle, advocates say. In Colorado there is prior case law which supports the idea of “the people” acting in the manner of a “legislature”, meaning that Colorado voters would not be violating the U.S. Constitution by voting to split their delegates.But that definition is up in the air, and it would have to be settled in a timely manner if the Presidential election hangs in the balance. The media attention and legal wrangling that plagued Florida in 2000 would essentially be repeated: this time in Colorado.Governor Bill Owens (R), among others, hopes it doesn’t come to that.The power of nine”The fact is that if Amendment 36 passed, it would forever make it easy for presidential candidates to ignore Colorado,” Owens wrote in a Sept. 19 guest column in USA Today. He and others are against the measure, saying that the Amendment would dilute Colorado’s electoral power.”Colorado is a state with a slight Republican majority, but which, nevertheless, has a longstanding tradition of electing Democrats to statewide and national office,” Owens wrote. “If Colorado split its electoral votes, leaving just one or two electoral votes in play, future presidential candidates — and presidents — would ignore Colorado and its interests in favor of states with more electoral clout. They would skip over us and move on to more fertile ground.”The measure is seen by opponents as a method to give John Kerry a boost into office and then leave Colorado impotent when it comes to attracting federal dollars. Politicians from both sides of the aisle are coming out against the measure, encouraging Coloradans to quell their populist streak in favor of sticking with the status quo.”I oppose Amendment 36,” says Jay Fetcher, a Democratic candidate for Colorado’s District 8 senate seat (which includes Eagle County). “I believe the original concept of the Electoral College is valid. And we will continue to draw national attention with the winner-take-all system.”The measure is being financially supported by a wealthy, out-of-state advocate named Jorge Klor de Alva, a man who has yet to comment in any media about the motivations behind his support of the Amendment. His primary residence is in California, but opponents say there is a good reason he didn’t tackle the electoral issue in his home state. California does have a similar “ballot initiative” rule in place, they say, which would give a electoral distribution amendment at least a fighting chance if passed there. But California also has 55 electoral votes. If an amendment were to split electorates there, critics say, George W. Bush could gain 25 to 30 of those votes, putting him over the top in terms of electoral votes.Owens calls this a “transparently partisan movement,” with the goal of giving “John Kerry a four-vote Electoral College boost,” in his USA Today column.”We’d truly be the least significant state in the union,” says Katy Atkinson of Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea, the bluntly-named group rallying to defeat Amendment 36. “It sounds awfully appealing at first, but under this proposal none of our votes will count we’d be looking at a 5-4 split for the rest of this decade.”Brown, of Make Your Vote Count, says Atkinson and Owens are wrong when they say presidents will ignore Colorado if delegates are split.”Maine’s (electoral votes) are split, and while they’ve never actually split they may split this year,” she says. “George W. Bush has gone to Maine 12 times for one electoral vote. I totally reject that argument.”The national movementBrown says Colorado could be the first state among many to pass a similar Amendment, leading the charge in the effort to reform the Electoral College.”We would hope that this would be copied in every state in the Union,” Make Your Vote Count’s Brown says. “But regardless, it’s good for Colorado.”Changing the Electoral College state-by-state isn’t likely to happen, says Bickers, the CU political science professor.”This would be very difficult to get through very many states,” he says. “Your best chance is states with ballot initiative and referendum, which is basically (27) Western states.”By way of example, Tupa’s first effort to get the measure through Colorado’s legislature was soundly defeated in 2001. The only way to make this a national movement, Bickers says, is to take it to the national level.”It would be a solution if it were implemented nation-wide,” he said. “You would no longer have a situation where the popular vote-winner would lose the election.”On Nov. 2, Coloradans will have the opportunity to vote on the way they’d like their votes to count but in the end, if the Amendment passes, it will most likely be judges who decide the final fate of Colorado’s Electoral College. VTTom Boyd can be reached for comment at tboyd@vailtrail.com.BOX 1:Eye of the stormWhat needs to happen for Colorado to be the center of another presidential election controversy?1) Colorado voters would have to approve Amendment 36, which would split the state’s nine electoral votes proportionally among candidates based on the popular vote. For example: if Bush beats Kerry 52 percent to 48 percent in 2004, Bush would receive five electoral votes and Kerry would receive four.2) The presidential election results would have to be extremely close much like the 2000 election within three or four electoral votes.3) The Colorado and United States Supreme Courts would have to allow for Amendment 36 to apply retroactively, so that it could legally apply to the 2004 presidential election.4) If all of the above happens, the U.S. Supreme Court would be called upon to settle a dispute over Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which states that: “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors” for president.BOX 2:The Electoral College: The president of the United States is voted into office by the Electoral College, a designated group of assigned voters who cast their vote according to how many votes a candidate received in their state. Colorado, for example, now has nine electoral votes. If a candidate wins the popular majority in Colorado, nine delegates will cast their vote in favor of the winning candidate. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.Colorado voting quick facts Colorado has nine electoral votes. In 2000 Colorado had eight electoral votes. In 1992, Bill Clinton won Colorado’s eight electoral votes by winning the popular vote 629,681 to Bush’s 562,850. In 1996, Bob Dole won Colorado’s eight electoral votes by winning the popular vote 691,848 to Bill Clinton’s 671,152. In 2000, George W. Bush won all 8 of Colorado’s electoral votes by winning the popular election 883,748 votes to Al Gore’s 738,227. If Amendment 36 had been passed before the 2000 election, Al Gore would have been President of the United States. Colorado is the only state with the opportunity to change the way it distributes its electoral votes this year.Box 4: Winning ColoradoA look at who has won Colorado’s electoral votes since 1900Year Colorado winner Overall winnerElectoral votes1900 William Jennings Bryan (D) William McKinley (R)41904Theodore Roosevelt (R)Theodore Roosevelt (R)51908William Jennings Bryan (D) William Taft (R)51912Woodrow Wilson (D) Woodrow Wilson (D)61916Woodrow Wilson (D)Woodrow Wilson (D)61920Warren Harding (R)Warren Harding (R)61924Calvin Coolidge (R)Calvin Coolidge (R)61928Herbert Hoover (R)Herbert Hoover (R)61932Franklin Roosevelt (D)Franklin Roosevelt (D)61936Franklin Roosevelt (D)Franklin Roosevelt (D)61940Windell Wilkie (R)Franklin Roosevelt (D)61944Thomas Dewey (R)Franklin Roosevelt (D)61948Harry Truman (D)Harry Truman (D)61952Dwight Eisenhower (R)Dwight Eisenhower (R)61956Dwight Eisenhower (R)Dwight Eisenhower (R)61960Richard Nixon (R)John Kennedy (D) 61964Lyndon Johnson (D) Barry Goldwater (R)61968Richard Nixon (R)Richard Nixon (R)71972Richard Nixon (R)Richard Nixon (R)71976Gerald Ford (R)Jimmy Carter (D)71980Ronald Reagan (R)Ronald Reagan (R)71984Ronald Reagan (R)Ronald Reagan (R)81988George Bush Sr. (R)George Bush Sr. (R)81992Bill Clinton (D) Bill Clinton (D) 81996Bob Dole (R)Bill Clinton (D)82000George W. Bush (R) George W. Bush (R)8Total votes since 1900: 26Total Democratic candidates elected: 9Total Republican candidates elected: 17Total number of times winner of Colorado has won nation: 18 source: University of VirginiaBox 5:A look at Eagle County’s registered votersRepublican: 9,348Democrat: 6,975Unaffiliated: 10,516Libertarian: 44Green Party: 57Reform Party: 6Source: Eagle County Clerk and Recorder as of Sept. 7, 2004


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