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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

Bush, Kerry see Ohio's electoral votes as crucial

By FRITZ WENZEL

BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

You can blame the U.S. Constitution. It is the document that set up the process by which Americans elect their president, establishing what would later become known as the Electoral College.

It's because Ohio is rich in Electoral College votes, and because Ohioans are deeply split over the candidates, that they and their surrogates have waged what may be the most aggressive presidential campaigning the state has seen.

Ohio is one of three large states - Pennsylvania and Florida are the others - still up for grabs, but a handful of smaller states have also won an inordinate amount of attention.

Each state is awarded electoral college votes equal to the number of congressional representation they enjoy in Washington. Ohio has 18 U.S. House members and two senators, so it has 20 votes. Michigan has 15 House members and two senators, so it has 17 electoral votes.

The idea behind the college is to spread representation in the presidential election proportionate to population, just as House seats are spread across the country proportionatr to population. Every 10 years, after the U.S. census is taken, adjustments are made to the size of congressional delegations to reflect population changes over the past decade. Some states lose a congressman - or two, on a rare occasion - and some states gain.

As the size of the congressional delegations change, so does the size of their electoral college.

Like the size of Congress, 535 members, the number of Electoral College votes remains the same: one for each member plus three more for the District of Columbia.

The winning candidate must amass 270 votes to win.

This year's presidential election is affected by those changes in the Electoral College because the census was conducted after the 2000 race, when President Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore, 271 electoral college votes to 266, with one abstention. The abstaining delegate from the District of Columbia was protesting the lack of statehood for the district.

The recent census affected the lay of the political landscape. As population moved south and west, so did Electoral College votes, mostly from states won by Mr. Gore four years ago to states won by Mr. Bush. If we were to have an exact replay of the 2000 election, Mr. Bush would win, 278 to 260.

When voters go to the polls, technically, they will not vote for Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry. Instead, they will be voting for electors for Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry.

Those electors then gather after the election in what is usually just a ceremonial event to officially cast their votes for the candidate who won a plurality of the vote in the election.

Forty-eight states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. In Maine and Nebraska, the winner of a plurality wins two votes, with the others being doled out based on who won each congressional district. Normally, those states are so sparsely populated that their different apportionment method doesn't matter. This year, it might.

Colorado voters will consider a measure Tuesday that would switch to such a system. If they approve it, it could be effective for this year's presidential election. This is good news for Mr. Kerry, who is trailing statewide, but could pick up one or two electoral votes from left-leaning congressional districts in the Denver area.

After Mr. Gore won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college, there was talk that arose after the 2000 election about abolishing the electoral college and electing the president based only on a national popular vote. Such a move would vastly increase the political power of large cities, and would strip power from less-populated parts of the country. Candidates would probably spend all their campaign time in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Toledo, which has had several candidate visits this year, the last one scheduled to come this morning with Dick Cheney's airport rally, would almost certainly never see a candidate.

Mr. Bush desperately needs Ohio's 20 electoral votes to win, but the way the race has shaped up lately, he may be in a position to be the first Republican ever to win the presidency without Ohio. If he loses the state, but is able to win Wisconsin and Minnesota, each of which has 10 electoral votes, he would offset the loss of Ohio. And because it appears as if he will win Iowa, which he lost four years ago, he would be able to withstand the loss of New Hampshire, which he won four years ago.

Iowa has seven votes, while New Hampshire has four.

This, of course, assumes that Mr. Bush wins Florida and all other states he won in 2000.

Most of the country has been nothing more than spectators as the presidential candidates focused certain battleground states. In addition to the tossup states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Iowa, the campaigns have focused on New Hampshire, Michigan, and to a lesser extent, Arizona.

There are ugly scenarios that have the race ending in a 269-269 tie, in which case the question would be thrown to the U.S. House. Then, each state delegation gets just one vote, and a simple majority wins the White House. Because a majority of delegations are controlled by Republicans, Mr. Bush would win re-election.

This is how Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1801. And there was one other time when it happened. In that case, it was the son of a former president who came out on top in 1825: John Quincy Adams.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at: fritz@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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