Callaghan: Washington again a spectator in presidential election

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

I'm not one of those haters on the Electoral College. If it worked for Thomas Jefferson, it ought to work for us (of course, some of those who worked for Thomas Jefferson were slaves, but that's another story).

Historians note that it was a compromise, back when you could compromise without drawing the wrath of a Super PAC. Some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted the president elected by the Senate and others wanted the leader chosen by popular vote. Instead, each state Legislature would select electors based on the number of seats they had in the Congress. Those electors would pick the president. That's all the Constitution says about it. It is by tradition and habit, rather than constitutional, that every state has decided that electors should vote for the candidate with the most votes. Nearly every state says the electors should vote as a unit.

Winner-take-all means that a candidate can win by one vote or a million votes and still capture all the electors a state has to offer. And just to make sure there are no surprises from what is termed a "faithless elector," state laws say they must vote as they are told. The political parties even choose the electors who do the balloting, usually giving the post to the most loyal members as a reward for faithful service -- and with the expectation that they keep the faith.

The effect of the Constitution, as well as the evolution of state laws for electing electors, is the two-party system because it is difficult for a third party to break through. It also has meant that the candidates figure out the math and concentrate time and money on the states that are close. Battleground states, they are called. In most wars, being in a battlefield is not prime real estate. In presidential politics, however, it is everything. And Washington state is not a battlefield and hasn't been for a very long time. Washington state has not given a majority of its votes to a Republican candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won re-election. The state even voted for Michael Dukakis.

No respect

This year, not a single poll of Washington voters puts likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney within reach of Barack Obama. Which means Obama takes the state for granted and Romney sees it as a waste of time. Some may view this as a good thing because Washington residents are less likely to be barraged with negative TV ads, mailings and phone calls. I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that the candidates and their surrogates don't even respect us enough to lie to us. If it wasn't for the phenomena known as Microsoft millionaires, the candidates wouldn't even bother to visit. At best, they schedule a rally or photo op amid a schedule of closed-door fundraisers.

So while I don't hate the Electoral College, it is starting to hack me off a bit. Because once again Washington voters and state concerns are afterthoughts in the presidential election.

Without the winner-takes-all tradition, the U.S. would probably have something resembling majority rules. All votes, not just those in Ohio or Nevada or North Carolina or Florida, would count the same. As it is though, Obama has no reason to spend much time in Texas and Romney can ignore California, other than to raise money and get some press coverage. Obama is well ahead in California and hopelessly behind in Texas.

A few states are moving toward changes. Nebraska and Maine let a candidate claim an electoral vote if they win a majority in that elector's congressional district. And the National Popular Vote Law movement urges states to pass laws giving all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins a popular majority nationwide. Those laws take effect only after versions are adopted by enough states to equal 270 electoral votes, the magic number needed to elect a president. Washington, which joined the movement in 2009, is one of just nine states to do so.

Change comes slowly or not at all. In the meantime, when it comes to the presidential election of 2012, we are watchers, not players.