by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Despite recent comparisons, there is a big difference between electing the next American Idol and electing the president of the United States. When people vote in the “American Idol” contest, every vote counts equally, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Unfortunately, those principles don’t hold true in presidential elections.

Our electoral college system skews the presidential vote in some weird ways. First, not everyone’s vote counts equally. Votes in the electoral college from less populous states are given more weight. For example, if you live in Nebraska, Rhode Island or Vermont, your vote counts about twice as much as our votes here in Missouri.

Currently, all but two states – Nebraska and Maine – give all their electoral votes to the statewide winner. If your candidate didn’t win statewide, your vote is essentially discarded. So presidential candidates are wise to avoid campaigning in states where the race is not close. Bush was smart to not campaign in California; he couldn’t win the state, and a million more votes there would not have helped him win the presidency. Likewise, Kerry didn’t try to get more votes in Texas because in the final tally it wouldn’t matter.

There are now only five to eight “battleground” states where the election is close. Presidential candidates focus all their attention on these states and concentrate on the issues that play well there. In the other 42 states, there is often little reason for voters to go to the polls. Republicans in New York can be assured their votes will not matter, and so can Democrats in Georgia.

The good news is your vote for the next American Idol will count and count equally no matter where you live. Yeah!

The state-by-state, winner-take-all system for electing the president also means sometimes the candidate who gets the most votes doesn’t win. Gore won the popular vote in 2000 but lost a key battleground state and thereby lost in the Electoral College. Bush won the popular vote in 2004 by several million votes, but if he had received 130,000 fewer votes in Ohio, he would have lost the Electoral College and the presidency. Richard Nixon also won the popular vote in 1960, but by losing Illinois he lost in the Electoral College to John Kennedy.

I probably don’t need to point out that in “American Idol,” whoever gets the most votes wins. Double yeah!

An effort is under way to reform the Electoral College to ensure that everyone’s vote counts equally and that the person who gets the most votes wins. The National Popular Vote initiative,, is an innovative idea that doesn’t attempt to eliminate the Electoral College, but it uses the power of each state to determine how its votes are cast in the Electoral College.

It works like this: Individual state legislatures, such as Missouri’s General Assembly, pass a law to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote. The legislation is part of an interstate compact with other states that pass the same legislation. The law would not take effect until enough states have entered the compact to elect the president – 270 votes out of the 538 in the electoral college.

Surveys conducted in Missouri indicate more than 65 percent of Missourians support the concept of a national popular vote, so you think it would be a no-brainer for the General Assembly to make this happen.

Unfortunately, the National Popular Vote Initiative bill that was introduced in the Missouri House last session never made it out of committee.

Fortunately, every state representative and half of the state senators are up for election this year. The upcoming debates, fundraisers and stump speeches are all good opportunities to ask these candidates if they support the National Popular Vote Initiative. Ask them if they support making everyone’s vote count, and count equally, when we elect the next president in 2008.

Everyone’s vote counts. Everyone’s vote counts equally. Whoever gets the most votes wins.

If “American Idol” can hold to these principles of democracy, surely our presidential elections should.