September 22, 2006 new York times
Innovator Devises Way Around Electoral College
By RICK LYMAN
LOS ALTOS HILLS, Calif., Sept. 21 — In his early 20’s, John R. Koza and fellow graduate students invented a brutally complicated board game based on the Electoral College that became a brief cult hit and recently fetched $100 for an antique version on eBay.
By his 30’s, Dr. Koza was a co-inventor of the scratch-off lottery ticket and found it one of the few sure ways to find fortune with the lottery.
Now, a 63-year-old eminence among computer scientists who teaches genetic programming at Stanford, Dr. Koza has decided to top off things with an end run on the Constitution. He has concocted a plan for states to skirt the Electoral College system legally to insure the election of whichever presidential candidate receives the most votes nationwide.
“When people complain that it’s an end run,” Dr. Koza said, “I just tell them, ‘Hey, an end run is a legal play in football.’ ’’
The first fruit of his effort, a bill approved by the California legislature that would allocate the state’s 55 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, sits on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk. The governor has to decide by Sept. 30 whether to sign it, a decision that may well determine whether Dr. Koza’s scheme takes flight or becomes another relic in the history of efforts to kill the Electoral College.
“It would be a major development if California enacts this thing,” said Tim Storey, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It will definitely transform it from a smoldering thing into a fire.’’
There have been many efforts over the decades to kill the Electoral College, the little-known and widely misunderstood body that actually elects the president based on the individual states that a candidate wins. Most recently, former Representative John B. Anderson of Illinois and former Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana spearheaded a drive, Fair Vote, for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College.
The brainstorm behind Dr. Koza’s effort, led by a seven-month-old group, National Popular Vote, was to abandon that approach and focus on creating interstate compacts. Those are contracts that bind states over issues like nuclear waste and port authorities.
Dr. Koza’s compact, if approved by enough legislatures, would commit a state’s electors to vote for the candidate who wins the most national votes, even if the candidate loses in that state.
Robert Hardaway, a professor of law at the University of Denver who wrote “The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism” (1994), has counted 704 efforts to change or abolish the Electoral College. Most, he said, were ill advised, including this one.
“It’s legal, but it would be a terrible idea,” Professor Hardaway said. “Look at the trauma the country went through having a recount in Florida. Suppose what would happen, in the face of a close national election, if we had to have a recount in every little hamlet.”
Dr. Koza, whose dissertation at the University of Michigan was titled “On Inducing a Nontrivial, Parsimonious Grammar for a Given Sample of Sentences,” said the idea came to him in early 2004, although he and Barry Fadem did not go public with it until February. Working with state lotteries as chief executive of Scientific Games in Atlanta, he had learned how interstate compacts work. Multistate lotteries like Powerball are based on such compacts. What, he wondered, if a similar agreement bound states together to thwart the Electoral College?
“The bottom line is that the system has outlived its usefulness,” said Assemblyman Thomas J. Umberg, the Anaheim Democrat who sponsored the bill here. “It’s past time that Americans should elect their president by direct vote of the people.”
Mr. Umberg and his staff met some of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s top staff members on Wednesday and came away encouraged about the prospects of the legislation. Although they received no commitment, it was clear that the governor, a Republican, was seriously considering the question and had not made up his mind about it, Mr. Umberg said.
“It’s anybody’s guess which way he’ll go,” Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, an Irvine Republican who opposes the bill, said. “He’s not your normal partisan politician.”
National Popular Vote bills were proposed in six legislatures this year. California’s was the only one to pass it, though the Colorado Senate voted for a version. The group has found sponsors for bills in 22 states next year.
“And we fully expect that by Jan. 1 we will be able to say that we have sponsors in all 50 states,” said Mr. Fadem, an East Bay lawyer who specializes in referendums and initiatives and is president of National Popular Vote.
The goal is to create a snowball effect. The measures may be unlikely to pass in time for the 2008 presidential race, Mr. Fadem said, but the idea could find enough traction as an issue for candidates to address.
As attractive as it is to guarantee the White House to the winner of the national vote, Dr. Koza said, he has other goals in mind.
“More important,’’ he said, “is changing the way presidential campaigns are conducted in this country. Now, the candidates spend almost all of their time in a handful of battleground states like Ohio and Florida and ignore the rest of the country. This would force candidates to campaign nationally for every vote.”
Mr. Storey said he remained skeptical that the idea would pass in enough legislatures to take effect. Almost certainly, he said, the states that are usually highly contested will oppose it, fearing the loss of attention and campaign spending. Also, Mr. Storey said, the battle might become partisan, as it did in California, where just one Republican legislator ended up supporting the bill.
Mr. DeVore said, “I just took a look at who was behind the movement, and they were left-wing partisans.”
Dr. Koza acknowledged that he had been a Democratic elector, twice, and his living room is festooned with photographs of him beside former Vice President Al. Gore and former President Bill Clinton.
He insisted, however, that the movement was fundamentally nonpartisan, and he pointed to the many Republicans who had agreed to co-sponsor bills on his plan. In New York, five lawmakers, all Republican, sponsored the bill this year.
Jerry F. Hough, a professor of political science at Duke, said that he was “an enthusiastic supporter of a popular vote for president,” but that he had problems with Dr. Koza’s plan. Professor Hough said he would like runoff provisions, for instance.
He also agreed conservatives could see the effort as a liberal stealth move to regain lost power, comparing it to the Republicans’ successful effort, after Franklin D. Roosevelt won four terms, to limit presidents to two.
“The two-term limit was clearly in the face of F.D.R.,” Professor Hough said. “And I would say this is clearly in the face of Al Gore’s loss in 2000.”