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Critics blast Michigan electoral reform plan

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A House committee took testimony Monday about a controversial proposal to abolish Michigan's winner-take-all approach to awarding electoral votes to presidential candidates and divvy them up based on the results.

The House Elections and Ethic Committee, which held a rare hearing during the Legislature's deer hunting break, heard little support for Rep. Pete Lund’s proposal to change the way Michigan awards its 16 electoral votes.

Under Lund’s proposal, the popular vote winner would receive a minimum of nine electoral votes. But for every 1.5 percent of the vote above 50 percent, the top popular vote-getter would win another electoral vote, giving the other top candidate an incentive to compete in Michigan, Lund said.

Under the winner-take-all approach, Democratic presidential candidates have won all of Michigan’s electoral votes since 1992.

“It rewards the candidate who actually comes here and plays here and talks about our issues,” said Lund, R-Shelby Township, about his proposal. “And if somebody decides they don't want to (compete in Michigan), then there’s potential they could lose all of the vote.”

Democrats, election watchdog groups and political science professors testified against the bill, saying it amounts to a scheme designed to “rig” the Electoral College in the favor of Republicans. Several voiced support for a movement to change the Electoral College to a national popular vote to avoid a repeat of the disputed 2000 election in which then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won more state electoral votes than Vice President Al Gore but lost the popular vote.

“Reform is needed, but not this reform,” said Jocelyn Benson, dean of the Wayne State University law school and the Democrats’ unsuccessful 2010 secretary of state candidate.

Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, expressed concerns about whether the proposal would violate voters’ equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution by divvying up their electoral votes differently than voters in other states.

Nebraska and Maine do not have a winner-take-all system but instead give a certain number of electoral votes to the popular vote winner and a small number of electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district in the state.

Heise also critiqued how Lund's bill doesn't account for a strong third-party candidate, mentioning former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a potential independent presidential candidate in 2016.

“I think we've all come to the conclusion that this bill in its current form is vague as it pertains to third-party candidates,” he said.

The committee did not vote on the bill after taking two hours of testimony. Another hearing is planned for Dec. 2, when lawmakers return to Lansing for a three-week lame duck session in which the Electoral College bill could factor into the passage or failure of a gas tax increase. Democrats have threatened to derail road funding by withholding their votes if Republicans pursue the legislation.

“I’ve not made any decision on when and if a vote will take place,” said Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, chairwoman of the elections committee.

Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said a change in electoral vote allocation would only benefit television broadcasters, pollsters and election advertising companies, electoral predictions guru Nate Silver “and writers of election textbooks like myself.”

“It would bring national media scrutiny and mockery for our Electoral College procedures,” Grossmann told the committee.

William Gordon, a Republican and tea party activist from Scio Township west of Ann Arbor, was the lone individual to testify in favor of Lund’s legislation. He said heavily populated urban areas in Michigan have an outsized voice in choosing presidents.

“The current system disenfranchises the rural communities and food producers of Michigan,” Gordon said.

Gordon echoed a point made repeatedly by Lyons that the U.S. Constitution empowers state legislatures to decide how to award electoral votes.

“I’m not a constitutional scholar ... but the Legislature has the power to decide how the electoral votes are allocated,” he said.

Patrick Levine Rose, an East Lansing attorney, testified in opposition to “Balkanizing” the state’s electoral votes, noting the Michigan Legislature divvied up its votes in 1892.

“It was roundly condemned, and it led to the direct election of U.S. senators,” said Rose, who worked for U.S. Sen. Carl Levin in 1988 on a failed Electoral College reform project.

Most dismissed Lund's premise that it would end Michigan's status as a “flyover” state after the late summer Democratic and Republican nominating conventions during presidential election years.

“Smaller prize, smaller clout,” said Sharon Dolente, director of the Michigan Election Coalition, a group of mostly liberal organizations that promote access to the ballot box.

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