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Colorado Dreamin'

How Colorado voters could mess things up for either Bush or Kerry. (And make things good for Californians at the same time.)

12:00 AM, Aug 18, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that Ohio is the eye of the storm of this presidential election. Just ask Howard Dean, who told a Cincinnati crowd last month: "Ohio is going to be the swing state. Ohio will be the Florida of 2004. We have to win here."

But if it's a Florida comparison that Governor Dean seeks, he should head for the Rockies. There, he'll find a ballot measure that could put the outcome of one state's presidential vote in doubt--and, yes, could require the courts to decide, as they did four years ago, who gets to sit in the Oval Office.

The ballot measure--the Colorado Electoral College Reform Initiative--would shift Colorado's electoral votes from a winner-takes-all system to one based on the popular vote (all states are winner-take-all, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, where the winner of the popular vote automatically gets 2 electoral votes, with the rest determined by the popular vote within each congressional district). The initiative specifically asserts that it applies "retroactively" to the 2004 election. Opponents claim the initiative violates provisions in the state constitution that that prohibit retroactive legislation; its supporters claim to have found case law that supports some retroactive legislation.

HERE'S WHY the Colorado measure has national implications: had it been in effect four years ago, Al Gore would be president. And if it goes into effect beginning on November 2, it could decide this year's race as well. Because George W. Bush won 51 percent of the state's vote in 2000, he earned all 8 of Colorado's electoral votes. But adjust that to reflect the state's popular vote and Bush would have received only 5 electoral votes, changing the national total from 271-266 in favor of Bush to 269-268 for Gore. (Let's assume, for argument's sake, that the one elector from Washington, D.C., who refused to vote for Gore would have come around, giving him the magical 270th vote).

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the Colorado effort has Democratic fingerprints. The campaign's spokesman, Rick Ridder, also was campaign manager for Dean's presidential run. He calls the electoral reform "a multi-partisan effort," claiming that 20 percent of the campaign's signatures are from Republicans. And the Republicans' take? Ted Halaby, the GOP state chairman, says the initiative "just doesn't pass the smell test." Governor Bill Owens is less sanguine: "If that passes, Colorado will cease to be a factor in any presidential campaign in the future."

HOW DID COLORADO get in this bind? One explanation is that it's fertile ground for political mischief. With a history of citizen activism, Colorado is an easy state for launching and qualifying ballot initiatives (the 67,000-signature threshold in Colorado is about one-tenth the minimum in California). Also, the state's voter registration--36 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic, 32 percent independent--makes "multi-partisan" an easy message to sell. Finally, there's a history of displeasure with the current system. Four years ago, a Democratic state senator, Ron Tupa, tried to talk the legislature into switching to the Maine-Nebraska model.

However, the initiative could end up backfiring on Colorado Democrats. Here's how:

Start by assuming that Kerry wins the same 20 states that Gore carried four years ago. That leaves him with 260 votes in the realigned Electoral College, to Bush's 278. Now, let's assume that Kerry adds New Hampshire to his column, which is another 4 electoral votes. The count then would be 274-264, Bush. Give Kerry Colorado and its 9 electoral votes and he wins the presidency, 273-265. But not if the reform initiative passes.

Instead of the winner-take-all 9 votes, Kerry would receive only 5 electoral votes, to Bush's 4 (this is assuming Ralph Nader doesn't have enough of a presence to pick up 1 electoral vote) . That would evenly divide the Electoral College at 269-apiece, leaving the U.S. House of Representatives to break the tie. As the House is likely to remain in GOP hands, Bush likely gets a second term and Democrats get to mutter "we wuz robbed" for another four years.

Not that any Democrats would ever allow this to happen. Chances are the initiative would face a legal challenge--not from Republicans who currently oppose it, but from national Democrats who'd sue their Colorado brethren in hopes of overturning the measure and giving Kerry the extra 4 electoral votes.