Usually, it's cutting-edge California that agitates the nation with hot-button ballot measures such as English-only education in 1998 and marriage protection in 2000. This year, though, Colorado is the rabble-rouser.
Amendment 36, an initiative that would change the way the state doles out electoral votes to presidential candidates, has riveted the attention of partisans, pollsters-and potential litigators. That's because both the Bush and Kerry camps know that in a race this close, the state's seemingly small cache of nine electoral votes could mean the difference in the election.
Today, Colorado, along with 47 other states and the District of Columbia, is a winner-take-all state: The candidate who wins the popular vote pockets all nine Colorado electoral votes. Amendment 36 would split the state's votes based on the popular-vote percentage each candidate wins and, if passed, would take immediate effect. If Mr. Bush's narrow lead in the state holds, he would, under 36, receive five electoral votes to Mr. Kerry's four.
Amendment 36 backers call that "proportional representation." The initiative "guarantees the democratic principle of 'one person, one vote,'" reads the website of Make Your Vote Count, the group behind the initiative.
But Colorado Republicans charge that Amendment 36 is really a partisan method for electing this year's president-namely John Kerry.
"That's the clear goal of the measure," said state GOP spokesman Bill Ray.
"Democrats are assuming that Bush will win Colorado, and they see this as a way to take four electoral votes away from the president."
Mr. Ray underscores that charge with an interesting point: Amendment 36 backers declined to put a similar initiative on the California ballot, even though the Golden State is another where qualifying a measure for statewide voting is a fairly simple matter. "Right now, California has a winner-take-all system with 55 electoral votes," Mr. Ray said. "If making every vote count is so important to [Amendment 36 backers], why not put the measure on the California ballot, too?"
The answer, he said, is that California has gone Democratic in the past three presidential elections. Proportional distribution of the state's 55-vote jackpot would be extremely helpful to Republicans.
Interesting then that Jorge Klor de Alva, Amendment 36's major financial backer, is a California resident. Mr. de Alva, a Brazilian college professor and former president of the for-profit University of Phoenix, has poured $600,000 of his own money into the Colorado initiative. His pro-36 allies include Colorado chapters of the AFL-CIO, Green Party, League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, a liberal interest group that counts among its accomplishments helping torpedo the judicial nomination of conservative Robert Bork.
Meanwhile, every newspaper in Colorado has joined Republicans in opposing 36, along with Gov. Bill Owens (R) and 15 of the 16 major party candidates running for Congress from the state.
Even liberal critics of 36 question whether White House contenders will worry much about campaigning in a state where even the winner will post a net gain of just one electoral vote. And in races with a strong third-party candidate, Coloradans might wind up virtually silenced.
Recent polls show Amendment 36 poised for narrow passage. If the measure does carry, Colorado's new deal could decide this year's tight presidential election-pending the conclusion of an almost certain volley of litigation. In future presidential races, though, Amendment 36 may also assure that Colorado becomes mere electoral flyover country.