A move to upend the way Georgia awards its votes for president

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C. In Georgia, state lawmakers look at this kind of attention and drool. Olivier Douliery/TNS

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Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C. In Georgia, state lawmakers look at this kind of attention and drool. Olivier Douliery/TNS

So Donald Trump will be at the Georgia World Congress Center this Sunday afternoon. John Kasich, the hug-distributing governor of Ohio, will have numerous events in metro Atlanta on Tuesday.

Bernie Sanders was here last week. That dust you see on the horizon is the Hillary Clinton train, headed this way. Again.

We have seen more presidential candidates than usual this election season, perhaps due to Georgia's position as a centerpiece in the March 1 "SEC" series of primaries throughout the South.

And yet certain people of influence in the state Capitol want more — Democrats as well as Republicans. Which is why, in the next few days, they may cast a first vote to upend the way Georgia doles out its 16 presidential electoral votes after November ballots are counted.

They will do so, in part, because as of March 2, Georgia will again become invisible in the presidential sweepstakes. The state will be largely ignored, except by candidates and surrogates in search of campaign contributions.

It’s the age-old competition for attention between a dozen or so “battleground” states and everyone else. The limelight falls on Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and other states whose results swing on a hinge from year to year.

Our sin? We’re too predictable, and are likely to remain so for several years to come. With exceptions in 1976 and 1980 for Jimmy Carter, and a 1992 dalliance with Bill Clinton, Georgia is a reliable Republican donor state when it comes electoral votes.

The Republican nominee for president, whoever he may be, will see Georgia as a “gimme” putt. The Democratic nominee will likely judge that the time and expense needed to move the needle here is better spent elsewhere. North Carolina, perhaps.

And so we have SB 376 and HB 929, two measures that would make Georgia's electoral votes entirely unpredictable – based solely on the outcome of the national popular vote. Rather than on votes cast in Georgia alone.

Both measures have Republican authors – Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, and Senate President pro tem David Shafer of Duluth. But the No. 2 signature on each bill belongs to the Democratic leader in the House and Senate – Stacey Abrams of Atlanta and Steve Henson of Tucker, respectively.

HB 929 won committee approval on Wednesday. A House floor vote is anticipated by Friday.

Both bills reflect the agenda of a non-partisan group called National Popular Vote, which for the last 10 years has pushed a strategy for circumventing the vagaries of the Electoral College – without an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich are on the group’s advisory board.

Through a compact with other states, Georgia would promise to deliver its Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. Ten states plus the District of Columbia have already done so. The compact would go into effect once compact states control 270 electoral votes – the amount needed to determine the outcome of a presidential contest.

So neither Georgia bill, even if passed, would impact this year’s presidential election.

In last week’s debate by a House committee, chaired by Matt Dollar, R-Marietta, one of the most common points made by advocates was that, in the last six weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, $22 million in campaign contributions flowed out of Georgia. Only $6,020 in television advertising was recorded in the state during that same period. The TV ad was aimed at voters in Florida.

“We’re either a battleground state or we’re spectators,” said Ehrhart, sponsor of HB 929. But this isn’t about a desire to swamp Georgia voters with political ads. This is really about the spoils of war.

“The battleground states receive seven percent more federal grants than spectator states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind exemptions,” Ehrhart said. “The list goes on and on and on.”

Some suspect the favors paid to battleground states are even more fundamental. Over 25 years, Georgia has spent $40 million to lawyers litigating its fight over water from the Chattahoochee River with Florida and Alabama.

"I would venture to say that in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., disproportionate attention has been paid to the interests of Florida's oystermen, often to the detriment of Georgia's thirsty human population, in part because Florida matters in the presidential election and Georgia does not," wrote Shafer, sponsor of SB 376, in a recent op-ed piece. His bill has the signatures of 45 of the chamber's 56 senators.

Clearly, there are implications if Electoral College votes are tied to a national vote total. For one, the 2000 election would have given us President Al Gore, rather than George W. Bush. But supporters of the legislation argue that the current Electoral College system – most states are winner take all — can be just capricious.

A shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 could have put John Kerry in the White House, even though Bush would have had 3 million more votes.

Since 1932, supporters say that Democratic and Republican presidential balloting has been at a rough parity – about 745 million each. So given the demographic direction of the nation, one could understand a Democratic reflex to support a national popular vote.

But Steve Henson, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, says he has other motivations. Some Republican-controlled states are moving toward distribution formulas in which electoral votes are doled out by congressional districts won – districts drawn to GOP advantage.

“I’m looking more at states where contrivances have been used to gerrymander the Electoral College vote,” Henson said.

Not everyone is a fan of shifting to a national popular vote. The role of states in presidential elections would be reduced, and presidential campaigns would focus on large population centers where the price per vote is cheapest, a Cato Institute critique has argued.

Stability is another possible problem. State compacts can be dissolved as easily as they’re created. A dissatisfied state could quickly drop out.

Nonetheless, Wednesday's debate over HB 929 attracted only one opponent – Bill Hudson, a Republican activist from Marietta. His bottom line was simple. If Georgia's winner-take-all system of awarding Electoral College votes kept Al Gore out of the White House, then "messing with this is a bad idea," he said. The bill passed out of committee unanimously.


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