INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Should presidents be elected by the popular vote or by the Electoral College created by the Constitution?
The Electoral College gives each state a number of votes equivalent to its two senators plus its number of representatives elected to Congress.
West Virginia has five electoral votes; California has 55.
West Virginia State University hosted a panel on the topic on Wednesday afternoon.
Professor Gerald Beller, chairman of WVSU's Political Science Department and panel moderator, said that "700 proposals [for change] have been introduced into Congress over the past 200 years."
Between two-thirds and three-fourths of the public has often supported the change.
"But most political scientists want to keep the Electoral College," Beller said.
Panelists included Chris Marr, a lobbyist for National Popular Vote, a national group based in California that publishes "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote" -- a detailed guide to reforming the Electoral College.
"In 2000, one presidential candidate, Al Gore, received the most popular votes, but George Bush won," Marr said.
This year's battleground states -- Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire and Nevada -- are getting far more attention from the Obama and Romney campaigns than states like West Virginia, where the voting outcome seems very predictable.
"There have been no rallies in West Virginia. Our votes are irrelevant," Marr said.
"In 2004 and 2008, candidates concentrated two-thirds of their visits and ad money in the post-convention campaign in just six closely divided 'battleground' states -- with 98 percent going to just 15 states. Two-thirds of the states were ignored," according to a statement distributed by National Popular Vote on Wednesday.
Legislation backed by the National Popular Vote organization encourages a pact between states approving reforms.
But other panelists were cautious about changing the presidential election system.
Professor Tera McCown, a political scientist at the University of Charleston, said, "We should be very cautious. The popular vote in only 11 states could determine the winner. The Electoral College makes all states have an impact.
"The Electoral College preserves the sanctity of diverse states. With a country as diverse as ours, we should proceed with caution."
Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, who also has been a surgeon for 25 years, said, "There is room for debate. But I supported the National Popular Vote Bill and sponsored it [in the West Virginia Legislature].
"In 48 states, the winner takes all. In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are allocated by congressional district. But this does not eliminate the Electoral College."
Foster cited three earlier presidential elections where candidates with the most electoral votes beat candidates winning the popular vote.
Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland in 1888; Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden in 1876; and John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824.
Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said, "In 2000, a lot of people felt the election had been stolen. I signed onto the bill that Sen. Foster introduced."
Professor Arthur DeMatteo from Glenville State College believes the Electoral College can also "give legitimacy" to elections.
As examples, DeMatteo cited three recent elections where a president won a plurality, but not a majority, of the popular vote: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992.
Foster pointed out those winning candidates "all had a larger percentage of the popular vote, which was not the case in 2000."
DeMatteo said, "I am concerned with this new proposal. It is trying to change things without amending the Constitution. It might also further exacerbate tensions between Republicans and Democrats."
DeMatteo also asked whether it "is constitutional to have a compact between the states" on this issue. "The Constitution says one state cannot enter into a contract with another state without the approval of Congress."
Professor Marybeth Beller of Marshall University said the issue is very relevant to this year's presidential election.
"Today, the election is being fought in states polls say are toss-up states. In many ways, our electorate is divided into rural and urban centers. That exists in every state."
Beller disagrees with states ceding their votes into one national vote. "This is a very complicated issue."
Frank Vaughan, from West Virginia State University, said, "It is important to think about the impact these decisions would have. I don't think there is a perfect way to elect our president. We can change, but every election is still going to have winners and losers."
Foster mentioned the diversity of the Electoral College, pointing out that "24 states do not bind their electors to vote for who wins a majority of the vote. West Virginia is one of those states."
Marr said nine states with 132 electoral votes have already approved legislation backing a majority vote, rather than an Electoral College vote.
"We need states with 140 more electoral votes to approve it."
Foster said, "Our electoral system is too long and too expensive. An excess of 70 percent of the American public wants to elect a president by popular vote.
"There is no perfect way to do this. But we are advocating that the person who gets the most popular votes will win the Electoral College."
Beller ended the panel discussion by urging everyone to vote. "If you do not participate in elections, then you are a moral failure."
Information from National Popular Vote is available at www.NationalPopularVote.com
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.