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Sen. Durbin wants amendment to constitution

By Chris Rickert - Staff Writer - Sunday, Nov. 12, 2000

DeKALB - Amid all the uncertainty this week over who will be the next president of the United States, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing the usually low-profile and often overlooked Electoral College.

In offering the legislation, Durbin is partnering with Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who has a similar proposal pending in the U.S. House.

Obviously, the moment is ripe for considering whether the Electoral College is a constitutional anachronism.

If Texas Gov. George W. Bush proves to be the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes, it will be only the fourth time in U.S. history that the candidate who failed to get the most popular votes becomes president. The most recent tallies show Bush's opponent, Vice President Al Gore, to have received close to 200,000 more votes than Bush in Tuesday's general election.

Under Durbin's plan, the president would be elected solely on the basis of who won the popular vote. Were no candidate to garner more then 40 percent of the popular vote, a runoff between the two top vote-getters would be held.

Durbin spokeswomen Mary Pat Reilly and Melissa Merz claimed that abolishing the Electoral College would create a fairer, more representative brand of democracy.

But others, including Northern Illinois University professor of political science Gary Glenn, disagree.

"The popular vote already elects the president, and it does so by state," Glenn said.

One of Glenn's primary ob-jections to abolishing the electoral college is that doing so would encourage anyone with name recognition - from the governor of California to Barbra Streisand - to jump into the presidential race.

With several more candidates in the field, the possibility of the top vote-getters receiving only 20 or 30 percent of the popular vote becomes real. And this is not a situation so easily remedied by runoff elections, according to Glenn.

"The cost of having a runoff election is you have fewer popular votes behind a candidate," Glenn said. This is because, historically, a smaller percentage of voters vote in runoff elections than in general elections.

A legislative aid to Durbin who preferred not to be identified calls this concern legitimate, but argued that since about 1830, only one winning presidential candidate has not gotten more than 40 percent of the popular vote.

Although this doesn't exactly refute Glenn's assertion, the aid said there's really no way to predict what would happen if the Electoral College were abolished because it's never been tried.

Glenn also argued that abolishing the electoral college would encourage candidates to ignore less populous states even more than they do now.

Under the current system, states such as California and Illinois, which have 54 and 22 electoral votes, respectively, get a lot of attention from candidates looking to lock up the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. But candidates rarely visit states like Wyoming, which has only three electoral votes.

Nonetheless, because Wyoming does have some electoral votes, Glenn said, there remains incentive to visit the state and to address issues important to residents. He said that if all candidates need to win are the most popular votes, they will be even less likely to visit sparsely populated states, instead spending most of their time in big cities such as New York and Chicago.

Again, Durbin's aid said it was difficult to know what would happen if the electoral college were abolished. He thought getting candidate's to visit and stay interested in less populous states may be simply a matter of logistics. Visiting big, more populated cities in these states, for example, may be one way to attack the problem.

"What should the candidate be motivated to do?" the aid asked. Should the candidate concentrate on getting votes from registered voters or on getting electoral college votes?

State Rep. David Wirsing, R-Sycamore, said it's important to keep the politics of the moment separate from a level-headed consideration of the electoral college's merit. He suggested a task force could be appointed to study the issue after a president has been named and all the hype surrounding the election has died down.

State Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, R-Sycamore, declined to comment on the proposal until he could study it and the constitution further.

Durbin's proposal was submitted before the Senate on Nov. 1, but won't be considered until next year, Durbin's office said.



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