After Bush v. Gore, Obama, Clinton wanted Electoral College scrapped

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are among the politicians whose past criticisms of the Electoral College system would draw new scrutiny if there is a split verdict in this year’s presidential election.

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National and swing state polls suggest it’s possible Republican Mitt Romney could win this year’s popular vote while Obama triumphs in the Electoral College — potentially marking the second time the rare split in outcomes has occurred in the last 12 years.

The last time it happened was in 2000, when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote but lost where it mattered. George W. Bush won Florida’s disputed recount, propelling him to 271 electoral votes — one more than he needed to take the White House. 

The outcome triggered an intense — if shortlived — debate over reforming the Electoral College. Today, lawmakers in Washington are no closer to agreeing on whether to change the rules of how someone wins the presidency.

Here’s a snapshot of where top lawmakers have came down on a controversial issue that’s once again in the political spotlight. 

SUPPORT REFORM

President Obama — Obama said he supported eliminating the Electoral College as a Senate candidate during a WTTW television debate against Republican Alan Keyes in 2004.

When asked, “Yes or no, eliminate the Electoral College?” Obama responded, “Yes … I think, at this point, this is breaking down.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Shortly after the 2000 election, as a newly-minted Senator-elect, Clinton called for direct elections of the president. She argued the country has changed since the Electoral College was put in place.

“We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago,” Clinton said at a news conference.

“I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”


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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — Five days after the 2000 election, Schumer called the U.S. voting system "antediluvian" and called for a study of simplified procedures. He, too, favored scrapping the Electoral College but said three-fourths of the states would never ratify an amendment.

“It won’t happen,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — The minority whip acted as soothsayer for the split-ticket election results in 2000.

A week before the Nov. 7 election that year, Durbin announced his plan to introduce legislation to do away with the Electoral College process, calling it a “dinosaur.”

"Our current system disenfranchises millions of voters who happen to vote for the losing presidential candidate in their state," Durbin said. “The electoral college is an 18th century invention that never should have survived to the 21st century.”

He announced the proposal with then-Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who is now Obama’s Secretary of Transportation.  

Former Vice President Al Gore — After the 2000 election, Gore continued to support the current system. But Gore reversed course during this year’s Democratic National Convention, criticizing the process that ignores voters outside of swing states and cost him the election.

“I’ve seen how these states are written off and ignored, and people are effectively disenfranchised in the presidential race. And I really do now think it is time to change that,” Gore said on Current TV, an independent cable network that he co-founded.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and 29 Democratic cosponsors signed on to a bill during the current Congress that calls for the direct election of the president and vice president.

“The Electoral College is a relic, a throwback largely due to the slave-owners who dominated the politics of our new nation at its beginning,” Jackson wrote in a 2008 editorial.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, this week proposed a constitutional amendment that would give 29 extra electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. 

AGAINST REFORM

Vice President Biden — A 36-year veteran of the Senate, Biden voted against a resolution in 1979 providing for “the direct popular election of the president.” The resolution fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. 

It was the last resolution of its kind to make it to the floor.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also voted against the 1979 resolution while a number of current Democratic Senators voted for it — including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

During prior years, the Senate and House had both approved separate proposals, but never in the same Congress.

A prominent sponsor and advocate for the resolution, Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), retired in 1980 and momentum for the proposal dropped.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — The Senate minority leader told the Associated Press two days after the 2000 election that presidential candidates would avoid small states if the Electoral College was eliminated.

“If we did away with the Electoral College, an awful lot of states would never get a visit from a presidential candidate,” McConnell said.

In 2011, McConnell blasted a national popular vote movement that would circumvent a constitutional amendment. He claimed it would lead to an extreme number of recounts.

“The proponents of this absurd and dangerous concept are trying to get this done while nobody notices, just sort of sneak this through,” and “we need to kill it in the cradle before it grows up.”

The National Popular Vote bill is a state-sponsored reform that would award a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote.

The law would be triggered once enough states signed on to form a majority, essentially bypassing the Electoral College.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — The chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shares the same opinion as McConnell about smaller states losing power without the system.

"Washington (state) would be hurt dramatically,” Murray told a Vancouver, Wash., high school on Nov. 20, 2000.

"Presidential candidates wouldn't come here."

UNCOMMITTED

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — Nine days after the 2000 election, Ryan said Gore should accept the totals from the machine recount that gave president Bush a 300-vote margin in Florida, with some absentee ballots still to be counted. 

He criticized the hand recount in some counties and blasted the Gore campaign for trying to decide the election through the courts.

“We should have the certified vote that we have right now,” Ryan said on Fox News. “Then when we have the absentees come in, we should pick a winner. We should pick a loser. The other guy should concede, and we should stop dragging the nation through this incredible lawyer-infested, subjective courtroom drama that we're seeing.”

Former President Bill Clinton — Shortly after his wife came out in support of Electoral College reform, and in the middle of the Bush-Gore recount, then-president Clinton said he had conflicting views about the issue.

“I have mixed feelings about it … And the practical reasons are no longer relevant,” Clinton said at a White House briefing seven days after the election.

“The other argument is that it gives some more weight to the small states … and, arguably, it gets more attention from the candidates to the small states. Now, I think that ought to be examined. I'm not necessarily sure that's so.”


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