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Could Virginia Change How It Picks Presidents?



Four times in American history, the candidate elected president did not win a majority of the popular vote.

In 2004, John Kerry could have claimed the presidency with just 60,000 more Ohio votes, despite George Bush being 3 million votes in the lead.

And in 2008, presidential candidates spent two-thirds of their ad money in only six states.

It's an "illogical and irrational" system, says billionaire Thomas Golisano, backer of a new, nonpartisan national movement to elect the president by popular vote without revising the Constitution.

The current system awards all of each state's electoral votes to the candidate who takes the most votes in that state — hence the red and blue election night map on CNN.

But the Constitution says every state can choose how to allocate its electors (Virginia has 13). The national popular vote movement is urging state legislators to pass bills in which states would agree to give their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide.

Basically, "it's an interstate compact," explains Jay T. Smith of Richmond lobbying firm Capital Results, which is leading the effort to get Virginia to sign up. Smith says the result would be a new system in which presidential candidates would pay more attention to all states.

In the 2008 presidential election, Virginia basked in the glow of national attention as a battleground state that could have tipped either way. Candidates visited, campaign dollars flowed, and pundits tuned their crystal balls here. But in previous elections, Smith notes, Virginia largely was ignored.

Will Virginia get on board with the popular vote initiative?

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, thinks it will be a tough sell. Electing the president by popular vote makes sense, he says: "If it were up to the public, we'd already be doing this."

But, Kidd says, "Virginia's very parochial. The rules are the rules in Virginia, and there's not a large appetite for changing the rules."

The problem is with the method, Kidd says, which is essentially "a creative way around the Constitution." State legislators are reluctant to tinker with the deepest mechanics of government, he says, because they fear opening the door to unintended consequences.

Six states and Washington have passed laws agreeing to the popular vote proposal, Smith says. In Virginia, his firm has only just begun talking to legislators about the plan. They have time to ponder — the goal, Smith says, is to get enough states to sign on in time for the 2016 election.

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