Debate over the Electoral College revived again

Richard Codey
Richard Codey
CBS News

(CBS News) LIVINGSTON, N.J. - The way Richard Codey sees it, whoever wins the national popular vote on Election Day ought to be guaranteed the keys to the White House.

"Overwhelmingly, the citizens of this country want a popular vote," said Codey, the second most senior member of the New Jersey State Senate.

Instead, on November 6, either Barack Obama will win a second term or Mitt Romney will win his first term because of Electoral College math -- the sum of 51 separate elections in 50 states and Washington, D.C. whereby each polity will award "electors" to the winner of its own popular vote.

From a low of three electoral votes in Delaware, Montana, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Wyoming, to California's high of 55, a state's electoral votes is its number of representatives plus its two senators. All but two states are winner take all on electors, except Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electors for each congressional district won. Nationally, the candidate who reaches the magic number of 270 electoral votes wins the presidency.

While the number of electors has grown to 538 along with the nation's population, the system is as old as American Revolution. It makes Codey think of the year 1776.

"I mean, it's outdated," he said.

The best proof for him is the disputed election of 2000 won by Republican George W. Bush, even though Democrat Al Gore won half a million more votes nationwide.

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The second President Bush was actually the fourth man to become president without winning the popular vote, following Benjamin Harrison in 1888, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

In 2007, Codey sponsored the bill that would require his home state to award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote no matter who carried New Jersey. It passed and was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Corzine, a fellow Democrat.

Seven other states -- California, Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and Hawaii -- together worth 138 electoral votes, have passed laws pledging to allocate electors in sync with the national popular vote in the same way, but have deferred action until their ranks double to states totaling at least 270 electoral votes.

The perennial debate about whether to do away with the Electoral College comes into sharper focus this year as the active playing field for the presidency has shrunk like never before to perhaps only ten or fewer "battleground states" whose electoral votes are considered up for grabs. The rest of the states are seemingly taken for granted as locked or leaning for one candidate or the other.

A CBS NEWS review of the Obama and Romney schedules since Romney clinched the Republican nomination in late April reveals that except for fundraisers, the candidates have not campaigned in roughly 40 of the 50 states, but those 10 anointed "swing states" are graced with public appearances over and over again.

"They only come to New York and New Jersey for our money and nothing else," Codey said.

Romney's visit to Colorado today is his 66th visit to a "swing state" since he clinched his party's nomination this spring. He's set foot in Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire at least 10 times each. He's visited Iowa seven times and Virginia eight. Romney has traveled to Colorado five times, and four times to Nevada and Pennsylvania. He's made three stops in North Carolina and two in Wisconsin.

President Obama's trip to Wisconsin yesterday was his 52nd battleground visit in the same time period. The president has gone to Ohio, Virginia, and Iowa eight times each since late April. He's been to Colorado seven times and to Florida and Nevada six times each. Obama went to North Carolina three times, Pennsylvania twice, while visiting New Hampshire and Wisconsin only once each.

The attention is equally as concentrated on the airwaves.

Since May 1, according to National Journal's battleground ad tracker spending by the Obama and Romney campaigns, their political parties, and independent groups supporting one side or the other has surpassed $400 million.

The Obama campaign and a super PAC supporting the president have spent $53 million on advertising in Ohio since May 1, while the Romney campaign and outside groups supporting him have spent $43 million. In Florida, the Democrats have spent $40 million, while the Republicans have spent $47 million, according to National Journal.

Kantar Media's CMAG , which tracks political advertising, found this summer that more than 1,800 presidential ads aired in a typical week in both the Columbus, Ohio, and Orlando, Florida, media markets.

As unbalanced as candidate attention may be, in the eyes of Republican New Jersey State Representative Alison McHose, the Electoral College preserves the balance of power between large states and small states, and between big cities and small towns within state borders.

"I think our Founding Fathers had it right," McHose said. "It shows that small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states across the country are important to how we elect the President."

Even though 62 percent of Americans told a Gallup Poll last year they would support replacing the Electoral College with the national popular vote, McHose would repeal her state's popular vote law.

"If we go with the popular vote, what I believe is that you will have large urban areas like Los Angeles and Chicago determining the outcome of the elections," she said.

McHose also considers the popular vote pact an end run around amending the U.S. Constitution, an almost impossible task.

"They don't have the votes, so they're trying to get around that by going to states, state legislatures and saying, 'Join us, come with us, we want to do this,' and I think it's sort of a cop out," McHose said.

Still, Richard Codey remains hopeful the popular vote will rule the land one day, saying: "The closer the Obama-Romney vote gets, that's more of a factor in deciding whether or not this gets done in four years or eight years or maybe even 12."

Researcher Abigail Collins contributed to this story.