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Jake Garn continues old fight vs. Electoral College

Published April 22, 2013 11:11 am

Politics • Former Utah senator rails against Electoral College.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, is now 80 years old. But he's continuing one of his old political fights — trying to eliminate, or at least circumvent, the Electoral College in presidential elections.

He wrote a forward for a new book seeking support for that position, published by the group National Popular Vote Inc., titled Every Vote Equal. Garn also serves on the group's national advisory board.

"I have always been against the Electoral College. Even when I was back in the Senate, I used to say we ought to have a national popular vote because it really affects states like Utah that are small. We're ignored," Garn said in an interview.

For example, National Popular Vote says only 12 states were visited by President Barack Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney after they were nominated by their parties last year. And just four states received two-thirds of those campaign events — Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa.

Under the current "winner-take-all" system in most states, the candidate who wins a state's popular vote wins all its electoral votes [Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes according to who wins in their separate congressional districts]. Garn says that gives candidates no reason to pay any attention to voters in states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind.

"States that reliably vote for one party, such as Utah, are thus ignored by presidential campaigns," Garn wrote in the forward for the book.

He adds in an interview, "If every vote counted, then every vote — regardless where it came from — would be just as important. Now they say, 'Well, the big electoral vote states are where we have to concentrate our campaign, and not worry about the smaller states.'"

Garn — who represented Utah in the U.S. Senate from 1974 to 1993 — said he heard for decades that changing the system would require passing an amendment to the Constitution, which most considered a long shot at best.

But National Popular Vote is pushing an alternative that would avoid that. It asks states to join a compact pledging to give their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. The compact would take effect once enough states have joined to provide a majority 270 electoral votes.

Eight states — Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California and Hawaii — have already passed legislation to join the compact, along with the District of Columbia. Together they have 132 electoral votes, just under half of the 270 necessary to activate it.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, last year unsuccessfully pushed to get Utah to join the compact. No such bill was pushed in this year's Legislature.

Opponents contend the change would violate the Constitution, or take away an advantage some say it provides small states by giving them more electoral votes per person than in big states. But Garn says change has been blocked mostly by political apathy, and adds, "I try to get people stirred up."

The electoral system has allowed three people who lost the national popular vote to win the election anyway. It happened in 2000 with George W. Bush and Al Gore, in 1876 with Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, and 1888 with Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.

National Popular Vote says it easily could have happened several other times, and that is a sign that change is needed.

For example, a shift of 59,393 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have elected John Kerry despite George W. Bush's nationwide lead of more than 3 million votes. A shift of 214,390 votes in 2012 would have elected Romney despite Obama's nationwide lead of more than 5 million votes.

"It seems so unfair to me how it was set up," Garn says of the electoral system. "Every vote ought to be equal whether it's from a small state like Utah or a big state like New York or California — and they really are not."