California currently gives all 55 of its electoral votes — the biggest electoral college prize in the nation — to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. Virtually all states use this winner-take-all method. The California initiative, which could go to a vote in June, would instead give the 2008 presidential candidates one electoral vote for every Congressional district that they win, with an additional two electoral votes going to whoever got the most votes statewide. (Democrats appear to have backed off from plans to try just as anti-democratic a trick in North Carolina, which is good.)
The net result of the California initiative would be that if the Democratic candidate wins in that state next year, which is very likely, the Republican candidate might still walk away with 20 or more of the state’s electoral votes. The initiative, backed by a shadowy group called Californians for Equal Representation, is being promoted as an effort to more accurately reflect the choices of the state’s voters, and to force candidates to pay more attention to California, which is usually not in play in presidential elections. It is actually a power grab on behalf of Republicans.
The Electoral College should be done away with, but in the meantime, any reforms should improve the system, not make it worse. If California abandons its winner-take-all rule while red states like Texas do not, it will be hard for a Democratic nominee to assemble an Electoral College majority, even if he or she wins a sizable majority of the popular vote. That appears to be just what the backers of the California idea have in mind.
If voters understand that the initiative is essentially an elaborate dirty trick posing as reform, they are likely to vote against it. But judging by the misleading name of their organization, the initiative’s backers want to fool the public into thinking the change would make elections more fair. They are planning on putting it to a vote in June 2008, an election when there will be few other things on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be extremely low. This bad-faith initiative is yet another example of the ways in which referenda can be used for mischief and a reminder of why they are a bad way to resolve complex public-policy issues.
Opponents of the initiative announced yesterday that they are sponsoring their own, rival initiative, which would commit California to a national plan that aims to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes president. That idea makes much more sense.
Leading Republicans, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been silent about the initiative to split California’s electoral votes, but they should be speaking out against it. The fight isn’t about Republicans vs. Democrats. It is about whether to twist the nation’s system of electing presidents to give one party an unfair advantage. No principled elected official, or voter, of either party should support that.