Real Reform
States could agree to pick president by popular vote

By Steven Hill
Published November 28th 2007 in The Reporter

It's ba-aaaaack! Like the hockey-masked assailant in the "Friday the 13th" movies that refuses to die, the GOP ballot measure designed to ensure that their presidential candidate wins nearly half of California's electoral votes has been revived. And it's got Democratic leaders nervous.

GOP operatives have found a new sugar daddy to bankroll their proposition that would award one electoral vote for each congressional district won by a presidential candidate, instead of giving 100 percent of electoral votes to the candidate that wins the statewide popular vote.

In 2004, John Kerry won all 55 of California's electoral votes, but under this proposal he would have won only 33, and George W. Bush the other 22. Democratic leaders believe the loss of those 22 electoral votes in 2008 will throw the presidential election to the GOP nominee.

But there are several ironies inherent in this latest bout of partisan sparring. First, it must be noted that Democratic allies tried a similar stunt in Colorado in 2004. There, a ballot measure was defeated that would have resulted in Colorado dividing its electoral votes, five for George W. Bush and four for John Kerry, instead of awarding all nine to Bush as the statewide winner. In a close race, that could have changed the outcome of the election.

California is a bigger prize than Colorado, no doubt a sign of the escalation to come. Already, a Democratic-controlled legislature in North Carolina, which has gone Republican every presidential election since 1976, passed a similar measure through its state senate, seeking to help Democratic presidential candidates.

The second irony is that, besides both sides trying to manipulate the rules, both also have been willing to toss voters overboard in their relentless drive to win. There is an implicit assumption in Democratic arguments against the GOP's ballot measure that the Golden State and its electoral votes belong to the Demo-crats, just as the Republicans think they own the electoral votes in Texas and North Carolina. Any attempt to up-end this sense of entitlement is regarded as a crossing of the hazy lines that define the rules of political warfare.

But the ramifications are severe. It means we do not hold a national election for president, but instead a hodgepodge contest composed of 50 individual states plus the District of Columbia, with most states considered safe one-party fiefdoms. Both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections came down to only two battleground states - Florida and Ohio. All the voters who lived in the other locked-up states mostly watched as spectators from the 42nd row.

And it appears the 2008 presidential election also will boil down to Florida and Ohio, unless something like the GOP ballot measure in California changes the cozy calculations.

The unasked question is: What took the GOP so long to try this gambit? The big story here is not simply one of a partisan power grab but that, given the internal illogic of our antiquated 18th century Electoral College system, it makes complete sense for them to do this. Just as it makes sense for the Democrats to carve up Texas or North Carolina.

It's the game itself that's broken, not the players. The GOP effort in California is the presidential equivalent of trying to rig legislative district lines through gerrymandering. It makes good partisan sense, even as it undermines democracy.

A better way to elect our president is a national direct election where a winner must have majority support. That's the only method that avoids these kinds of partisan manipulations, or that allows all voters, no matter where they live, to feel like their vote for president counts. No states are gerrymandered or locked up, and everyone contributes to the national outcome.

We don't need a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College to enact this. The U.S. Constitution allows each states to pass a law agreeing to give 100 percent of its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. If about 25 states with an aggregate majority of electoral votes did this, it would turn the presidential contest into a de facto national popular vote.

Maryland and Illinois already have passed this law, and led by its proponents at, bills have been introduced in more than 40 states. California passed this law as well, but Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed it in what appeared to be a partisan act.

Certainly a national presidential election poses some logistical issues, though Russia and France seem to manage theirs. But enacting a national popular vote is the best way to ensure not only that voters count but that the vices of partisan manipulation don't spread from redistricting to the Electoral College, drenching our presidential elections in more controversy.

The author is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation in San Francisco and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (