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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

As the U.S. goes, so goes WA

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill today that could dramatically change presidential elections in  years to come. It could result in Washington voters picking one candidate, but the state's Electoral College votes going to another.

SB 5569 is part of a national movement to "reform" the Electoral College system by tying it to the popular vote. If enough states sign onto the idea, the state's will give their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote.

Think of that for a minute.

In 1976, even though Washington voters backed Gerald Ford, Washington's votes would have gone to Jimmy Carter. In 1988, even though Washington voters backed Michael Dukakis, the electoral votes would have gone to George H.W. Bush. In 2004, even though the state's voters went for John Kerry, Washington's electoral votes would have gone to George W. Bush.

What's the difference, you might ask? All of those switches are to the eventual winner, anyway.

The difference is that the national winner was decided on the basis of votes elsewhere. If people want to elect a president based on the popular vote, why not just get rid of the Electoral College entirely? Why make any pretense that this is a 50-state contest?

The Progressive States Network, which is an organization supporting the switch, says this is good for all voters "to have their voices heard equally." The group also says it will shift the campaign emphasis away from a few "battleground states" where the presidential race is competitive, and benefit a state like Washington, which it calls a "spectator state."

But it could also hurt less populous states, where there are less voters, and encourage candidates to run up big margins in more populous states, where they have significant margins.

So Washington might get a few more visits from Democrats in a year where they are comfortably ahead, but nowhere near as many as California. And poor Idaho can forget about getting anything from Democrats, and assume that Republicans will know they can max out the vote without much effort -- you know, sort of like it is right now.

The group also claims that more attention from the candidates in battleground states automatically translates into more voter turnout. And that just isn't so.

For example, one of the most hotly contested states in the last two presidential elections has been Ohio. In October of '04 and '08, you could hardly go to a gathering of three or more people in the Buckeye State without a candidate showing up. Washington, on the other hand, was pretty solidly for Kerry in '04 and Obama in '08.

So how much higher was Ohio's turnout than Washington's last year? 10 percent? 5 percent? Surely more than 2 percent?

Nope. In 2008, Washington's total turnout was actually one-tenth of 1 percent higher than Ohio's. In 2004, it was one-half of 1 percent lower.

Truth is, Washington state has a much better than average turnout the nation most years. It has nothing to do with attention from the presidential candidates. It's mainly a reflection of attention by the voters.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.