States Try to Alter How Presidents Are Elected

By Jennifer Steinhauer
Published August 12th 2007 in New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 10 — When state Democratic leaders from around the country meet this weekend in Vermont, the California chairman, Art Torres, expects to be peppered with the sort of questions that have been clogging his in-box for weeks.

What is this about Republicans trying to change the way Electoral College votes are allocated in California? Is there a countereffort by Democrats in the works? What does it mean for presidential candidates?

Frustrated by a system that has marginalized many states in the presidential election process, or seeking partisan advantage, state lawmakers, political party leaders and voting rights advocates across the country are stepping up efforts to change the rules of the game, even as the presidential campaign advances.

In California, this has led to a nascent Republican bid to apportion the state’s electoral votes by Congressional district, not by statewide vote, in a move that most everyone agrees would benefit Republican candidates. Democrats in North Carolina are mulling a similar move, because it would help Democrats there.

In more than a dozen states, the efforts have also led to a game of leapfrog in the scheduling of presidential primary and caucus dates. Most recently, on Thursday, Republicans in South Carolina moved their primary to January from February to get ahead of Florida’s.

Further, there is a germinal movement to effectively abolish the Electoral College, awarding the White House instead to the winner of the national popular vote. Maryland recently became the first state to have such legislation passed and then signed into law, although legislatures in several other states have passed similar measures.

"There are different political fires all over the place," Mr. Torres said. "We felt before that we would try and maintain some order and discipline, but it has been difficult to do. This all portends a strong initiative by states to exert more power."

Each maneuver, which experts on electoral politics agree could radically change the political landscape or, just as easily, completely wash out, has added a generous dose of unpredictability to an already knotty federal election season.

"You have to be watchful of what is happening," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. "It’s a reality that we have to deal with, but the people on the ground have their heads down and are working as hard as they can."

The states’ efforts reflect a momentum outside Washington to "get a system that reflects public preferences," said George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. Elected officials, state party leaders and many voters have grown weary of a system in which "candidates focus on 13 or 14 states and no other states get attention, except for fund-raising," Professor Edwards said.

In 2004, 13 states with 159 electoral votes among them were considered "in play," according to FairVote, a voting rights organization; in 1988, there were 21 such states and 272 electoral votes.

The interest in changing the way the president is elected was largely seeded by Democrats after the 2000 election, but has since been embraced by Republicans as well.

"We have discovered what our founding fathers learned as well, which is that you can manipulate election outcomes by setting those rules," said Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers in eight states considered bills that would give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote rather than the presidential candidate chosen by state voters; the measures would take effect only if states representing a majority of the 538 electoral votes made the same change.

"The idea of the states banding together and being able to set the rules of the game to directly elect the president is a new idea," said Pete Maysmith, the national director of state campaigns for Common Cause, which advocates a national popular vote. "And I think it is grabbing people’s attention and gaining momentum."

Far more potentially significant in the near term, however, is a recent move by the lawyer for the California Republican Party to ask voters in a ballot measure to apportion electoral votes by Congressional district. With numerous safe Republican districts around the state, this change could represent roughly 20 electoral votes for a Republican candidate who would otherwise presumably lose the entire state, which has been reliably Democrat in recent presidential elections.

"We think it is the most effective way of having California count," said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the ballot effort, the Presidential Election Reform Act. "Candidates love California in the spring when they come out to raise money. But after that, as long as California is not in play, it tends to be ignored."

Mr. Eckery said that polling on the issue would cost $300,000 to $500,000, and gaining enough signatures to get the initiative on the June 2008 state ballot would cost a few million dollars more. Fund-raising has already begun, and proponents and opponents of the measure believe the effort will attract ample donors.

While assigning electoral votes by Congressional district is a movement lacking broad national support, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that should the effort by California Republicans gain steam, other states might consider it as well, if for no other reason than to counter the anticipated Republican gains here. Only Maine and Nebraska currently use such a system.

Had the electoral votes been allocated by Congressional district nationwide in 2000, President Bush’s electoral margin of victory would have been just over 7 percent, or eight times his take that year, according to FairVote.

If the California measure succeeds, "it would make it impossible for a Democrat to win the White House" in a close election, predicted Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who ran Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most recent campaign in California and has been an adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

Democrats and other interest groups have already promised to take steps to defeat such a proposal.

In the North Carolina legislature, Democrats nearly signed off on a similar measure this summer, until the national party chairman, Howard Dean, stepped in to get the issue tabled for the session.