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John Baer: Potential for mischief in outdated electoral process

IN ARCANE HOMAGE to a dangerous process, 21 Pennsylvanians meet Monday at noon in the state Capitol's House chamber to officially elect Barack Obama president.

IN ARCANE HOMAGE to a dangerous process, 21 Pennsylvanians meet Monday at noon in the state Capitol's House chamber to officially elect Barack Obama president.

This is the Electoral College process followed in 50 states and the District of Columbia on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of presidential years.

I suspect there are secret handshakes.

Electors are picked by candidates or parties and in some states (not in Pennsylvania) can appear on the ballot below the name of a presidential candidate.

Mayor Nutter is an elector. So is Lynne Abraham. So is former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris.

Electors vote Monday for the candidate who carried their state in November, though there's no federal law or constitutional requirement to do so and 24 states, including Pennsylvania, have no state requirement to do so.

This alone holds potential for mischief.

I mean, Harris could fumble.

The votes go to Congress, which meets in joint session on Jan. 8 to certify them. The Senate president presides. That would be Dick "The Angler" Cheney - again, a potentially dangerous situation.

This is a process prime for extinction.

(The only loss here would be that nice post-vote luncheon at the Governor's Mansion. This year, it's tomato soup, tilapia, potatoes, squash succotash and chocolate cake.)

There are 538 electoral votes, one representing each of the 435 U.S. House districts, one for each of the 100 Senators and three representing the District of Columbia.

D.C. and 48 states assign all their electoral votes to the candidate winning their state's popular vote, no matter the margin (Maine and Nebraska have proportional systems).

It takes 270 to win the presidency. Obama got 365 on Election Day. We'll see what he gets Monday. What if some electors buy that he's-not-really-a-citizen thing?

The 219-year-old system was created to help southern states load up on electoral votes by counting slaves (as 3/5ths of a white person) and because it was thought that an agrarian society, without mass communication, wasn't well enough informed to pick its president.

Clearly, neither reason holds today. Two electors picked by Obama I spoke with agree.

"Perhaps the time has come to review it," says Montgomery County state Rep. Josh Shapiro. And Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick says, "I think it has outlived its usefulness."

There are many reasons to end the system, the most obvious being its anti-democratic structure allowing a candidate to win the White House without winning the most votes.

Happened three times, most recently in 2000 (with results we don't need to go into). It almost happened in 2004 when - but for a slim Ohio 2 percentage points - it almost elected John Kerry, though George Bush won the national vote by three million-plus.

It diminishes Republican voters in states such as California and New York and Democrats in states such as Alabama and Texas, trashing the principle that all votes are equal, and it exaggerates the importance of voters in states such as Florida and Ohio.

It traditionally forces campaigns to ignore most states to focus time and resources on swing states, and it unfairly reinforces the nation's blue state/red state divide - the winner-take-all rule makes it seem like all of Kansas is Republican (Obama won 41 percent there) or all of California is Democratic (John McCain got 4.5 million of its votes).

Best way to fix it?

States have the constitutional power to determine how to assign their electoral votes.

States can and should enact laws stating whoever wins the most votes in all 50 states and D.C. gets their electoral votes.

Four states have done so - Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland - and legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania and 43 other states, according to National Popular Vote, a California-based advocacy group pushing the issue.As we enter an era of promised "change" with a new president, it's time to enact sensible change in the way we pick the president. *

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