When Senate Bill 51 passed the state Senate, Colorado moved closer to correcting one of the most undemocratic features of our presidential election -- the winner-take-all system of apportioning a state's Electoral College votes.
Colorado law currently gives all eight (increasing to nine in 2004) of our electoral votes to the candidate winning the most votes statewide, effectively discarding the votes of all citizens who did not choose that candidate.
The bill introduced by Sen. Ron Tupa (D) of Boulder would refer to the people a vote (in 2002) on whether to replace winner-take-all with a congressional district-based system. The district system is a non-partisan reform that brings the voting power closer to citizens by giving each district an elector who represents the district residents' vote. Two at-large electors still will be awarded to the statewide vote leader.
Winner-take-all favors different parties in different years, but never can represent our votes fairly. Last year George W. Bush was the beneficiary, gaining all eight electoral votes with just over 50 percent of the popular vote. Citizens of two congressional districts favored Al Gore overwhelmingly, but were denied representation. Republicans benefited in 1996, too, but just look back to 1992 and we find Bill Clinton taking all of Colorado's electoral votes despite winning just 40 percent of the vote. The citizens' voices that supported George Bush Sr. in the three districts in that race effectively were silenced.
Some of the deep flaws of the Electoral College are obvious in the wake of the 2000 election -- notably the recurrence of candidates (four of our 43 presidents) assuming office after losing the popular vote.
The most serious problems result from discounting heavily the votes of citizens in more populated states.
For example, Colorado's eight electoral votes correspond to 1,741,368 actual voters (for candidates on the 2000 presidential ballot), meaning 218,000 voters are "represented" by each electoral vote. In Wyoming, with three electoral votes and 214,086 voters in the 2000 election, one vote in the Electoral College represents about 71,000 voters. Thus a Cheyenne resident's vote counts for three times that of a counterpart across the border in Ft. Collins. So much for the "equal protection" clause in the Constitution.
Because the Electoral College is a constitutional creation, reforming the system nationally will take time to progress, but we should not wait to make needed improvements here. Colorado is one of more than 20 states introducing bills this year to implement either a district-based system or Instant Runoff Voting for electoral votes.
Critics of the district-based reform have advanced the disingenuous argument that it would reduce our power to draw attention in the presidential race as a "small state," arguing that the winner-take-all debacle encourages more competition for Colorado's votes. They conveniently overlook that the dominant parties' candidates disregarded us in the 2000 general election. We understandably were ignored because both campaigns considered our state a lock for Bush.
Nebraska and Maine, two truly small states, have used the district-based system in place for years with bi-partisan acceptance. However, Colorado is not a small state, but one of the more populous, and subsequent to the 2000 Census we gain a ninth electoral vote and seventh representative.
I worked with Sen. Tupa to introduce this bill without interest in helping or hindering either major party, so it was disturbing that Republican senators with short memories (who opposed the bill en masse) refused to look past the advantage they gained in the 2000 election to serve democracy.
As a Representative prior to winning a Senate seat, Tupa successfully championed important political reforms, even ones initially unpopular with his Democratic colleagues. His legislation to eliminate unreasonable barriers to third-party candidates in state elections indicates his passion for democracy, not partisanship.
The next hurdle for Bill 51 is the afternoon of Thursday, March 15, when the House State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee will either move the bill to a vote by the full House or kill it in committee. Three representatives from El Paso County hold the key to the bill's fate: Bill Sinclair, Bill Cadman and David Schultheis. They need to immediately hear from their constituents who support this step toward democracy.
By bringing electoral power closer to the people, SB51 will give citizens more opportunity for their individual efforts to have an impact. The House should not deny Coloradans the opportunity to make this important decision for ourselves via referendum. Please insist they offer us that choice.
Jeff Milchen is the director of ReclaimDemocracy.org.
To see the full bill or for more information, visit ReclaimDemocracy.org's Electoral Reform page or call 303/402-0105.