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Dropping out of the electoral college

Story Highlights

• Maryland may become the first state to drop out of the electoral college
• President Bush won electoral vote in 2000 even though Gore won popular vote
• Under new law voters give all their electoral votes to whoever wins popular vote
• Law activates only if enough states pass similar laws to total 270 electoral votes
by Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What's happening in Maryland? On Tuesday, Maryland became the first state in the union to drop out of college. The electoral college, that is.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a law that would award the state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. As long as others agree to do the same. "Actually, Maryland will drop out only if a lot of other states do, too. Maryland's new law will go into effect only if enough states pass similar laws to total 270 electoral votes -- the number needed to elect a President," O'Malley said.

Those states would agree to appoint presidential electors who would vote for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter who wins the vote in each state. It would be a way to turn presidential elections into a nationwide popular vote without having to amend the Constitution.

That's the solution. What's the problem?

The problem is what happened in 2000. George W. Bush got elected by winning the electoral college, even though Al Gore got more votes. That's happened four times in the country's history.(Watch Schneider talk about the Maryland law Video)

In our current system, the president is elected by the electoral college and not directly by the people. The number of electoral votes each state receives depends on its population and representatives are chosen to vote on behalf of the people in the state. To win, a candidate has to win 270 electoral votes, which is a majority. If neither candidate gets that, Congress determines who wins. A few times, the American people's choice for president hasn't actually moved into the White House.

It's mostly Democrats who are behind this move. They're still angry over how Bush got elected, even though in 2004, a shift of about 60 thousand votes in Ohio would have elected John Kerry despite Bush's popular vote margin of over three million.

The new system would also nationalize the presidential campaign. Right now, candidates spend most of their time campaigning in battleground states. Often they try to win over voters in little tiny places, like South Succotash, Ohio, and East Icicle, New Hampshire.

If the new system were adopted, constitutional scholar Tom Mann said there would be major changes to campaign strategies. "You would see a much greater emphasis by the candidates campaigning in large, uncompetitive states. States like California, Texas and New York," he said.

The campaigns would go to ignored places like Houston and Los Angeles and New York because there are a lot of voters in those places. And unlike before, their votes would now matter.

But the new rules would also disconnect a state's voters from its electors. Maryland voters could vote 100 percent Democratic, but if the Republican won the national vote, Maryland's electoral vote would go to the Republican. "It's based on the proposition that, say, those of us who live in Maryland care more about the national outcome of the popular vote for the president across the country than we do for our own particular state," Mann said.

Since independents and third party candidates would no longer have to carry entire states, it would encourage more of them to get in. Someone could win the national vote with a bare plurality, perhaps as low as 25 or 30 percent. And a very weak mandate.

Of course, third party candidates make a lot of mischief now. Look at what Ralph Nader did in 2000 by taking votes from Al Gore in Florida. "I think Ralph Nader is probably more influential under the current rules, although I think under the proposed rules you would get a lot more players in the game, and therefore, a lot more uncertainty."

More uncertainty. Is that what we need? But for now, the change is a long way from happening. The law is awaiting the governor's signature in one other state, Hawaii. The California legislature approved the idea last year, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Is this really going to make a difference? You need 270 electoral votes to make this thing work. How many electoral votes does Maryland have? Ten.


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