Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Back to College

By Shawn Healy
The 2000 presidential election made many of us wish that we had paid attention in our high school civics class when pregnant chads in Florida complicated an outcome seemingly favorable to Al Gore. The rest, of course, is history, as the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to stop the recount, essentially handing the election to George W. Bush.

The Electoral College, after all, determines the winner of the White House, and while tied to the popular vote, it has made popular vote losers into presidential winners four times: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. Bush, in his 2004 bid for reelection, narrowly escaped falling victim to the same system by which he benefited four years earlier. A mere 180,000 votes in Ohio clinched the state, and thus the election, for the current President.

The Electoral College, as established by Article II of the U.S. Constitution, awards Electoral Votes to states on the basis of their combined number of Senators and Representatives. While every state has two Senators, House delegations are reapportioned every ten years consistent with the census. State legislatures are empowered to determine the manner by which Electoral Votes are awarded. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, Electoral Votes are extended in winner-take-all fashion. A candidate need only secure a plurality of a state vote to secure all of its Electoral Votes.

Through this process, a close popular vote can yield a blowout in the Electoral College if the winner of the former secures narrow margins in states with hefty Electoral Vote totals. It also enables a mismatch between popular and Electoral votes if a candidate wins battleground states narrowly while faring poorly in enemy territory.

Two states use another mechanism to allocate Electoral Votes, Maine and Nebraska. These states award the winner of the state's popular vote two Electoral Votes. Then, the winner of a congressional district is awarded a single Electoral Vote for each district secured in the state. Maine and Nebraska are small and politically safe (blue and red, respectively), so both tend to send a uniform delegation for the Democratic and Republican candidate.

Enter California. State GOP strategists are backing an initiative, the Presidential Election Reform Act, to appear on the June 2008 ballot to implement a system identical to Maine and Nebraska. The impact could be profound. For example, in 2004, John Kerry defeated President Bush by 10% in the statewide vote, yet the Massachusetts Senator lost 22 of the state's 53 congressional districts to the incumbent. Kerry walked away with all of the state's 55 Electoral Votes, but would have secured 33 to Bush's 22 under a district system.

This is cause for concern in the Democratic Party. Most assume that Ohio will shift from red to blue in the coming election, a transfer of 20 Electoral Votes. Assuming the rest of the electoral map stays the same, the Democratic winner would soon be measuring the dimensions of the Oval Office. California holds the potential trump card, however, potentially neutralizing the loss of Ohio or Florida through a recipient allocation of Electoral Votes previously reserved for the Democratic candidate.

California Democrats have countered with a punch of their own. They seek to become the second state to pass legislation to join the Campaign for the National Popular Vote. The statute allocates a given state's Electoral Votes on the basis of the winner of the national popular vote, meaning that George W. Bush, and not John Kerry, would have won all of California's 55 Electoral Votes in 2004. To date, Maryland is the only state with such a law on the books. Twelve others have passed laws in at least one of the two legislative houses. An additional thirty states have introduced similar legislation. These laws would be triggered when a combined 270 Electoral Votes, a majority in the Electoral College, are allocated by a requisite number of states.

Both reforms reek of political maneuvering and arguably do little to restore the small-d in democracy. The move to allocate Electoral Votes by congressional district comes closer to this end, but would not be realized until adopted universally. In an isolated situation like California, it does little more than rig an election in one party's favor. The Campaign for a National Popular Vote seems like a round-about way to undermine the Constitution. The document makes alterations to its fabric possible through an amendment process. This organization and its adherents would enjoy more legitimacy if they worked through these established channels.

Both measures could appear on the June 2008 California primary ballot. At stake: The resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue circa 2009.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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