How to divvy up state's electoral votes?
3 initiatives in works to change winner-takes-all

By John Marelius
Published September 2nd 2007 in San Diego Union Tribune
California voters may get the opportunity to dramatically alter the 2008 presidential landscape by changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes.

Three rival initiatives have been proposed for the June 2008 ballot, although all are in very preliminary stages and it is unclear which, if any, will qualify for the ballot.

A Democratic option would give all of the electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of how California voted. It only would become effective if enough states whose electoral votes added up to at least 270 – the number needed to win – joined in.

A surprise third initiative filed last week by a small, relatively unknown group would allocate electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote in California once a majority of states adopt a similar system.

There long has been scattered grumbling in academic and political circles that the U.S. Electoral College is unfair. Sentiment to change it or abolish it altogether has never reached critical mass – not even after the disputed 2000 presidential election in which Republican George W. Bush was declared the winner, even though Democrat Al Gore received the most popular votes.

“I had hoped (the 2000 election) would start a national conversation about whether or not the Electoral College should be abolished,” said political scientist Angela Ledford at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. “But with the exception of very partisan Democrats on the left, it didn't happen.

“Maybe that conversation is happening and it's now starting to bubble up to the surface.”

Four presidents have been elected by the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.

Republican attorney Thomas Hiltachk set off Democratic alarm bells across the country by filing an initiative to award electoral votes in California by congressional district.

Dividing the electoral votes in such a fashion would virtually guarantee permanent Republican occupation of the White House by awarding GOP presidential nominees at least 20 additional electoral votes.

Hiltachk represents both the California Republican Party and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political operation, although neither entity is involved in the effort. Schwarzenegger has signaled his opposition, or at least indifference, to the plan.

“In principle, I don't like to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Schwarzenegger said when asked about the proposal at a recent Sacramento news conference.

Democrats promise a furious and expensive counterattack bankrolled by Hollywood producer Stephen Bing and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

“This power grab orchestrated by the Republicans is another cynical move to keep the presidency in Republican control,” California's Democratic U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, said in a joint statement.

Feinstein has introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and elect the president by simple popular vote.

Critics of the Electoral College say it undermines the principle that all votes should count equally. California, the most populous state, has 68.6 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming. Its 55 electoral votes give it only 18.3 times the Electoral College representation as Wyoming's three.

“There's something to be said for letting voters in northern and eastern San Diego County feel like their votes actually matter in a presidential election,” said GOP strategist Dan Schnur, who said he would favor allocation by congressional district if it could be done nationally.

“It serves a purpose, namely that it confines ballot challenges to individual states,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of U.S. politics at Claremont McKenna College. “When you have a close election under a direct popular vote, you'll end up with ballot challenges everywhere, because if you can find a couple of votes in a lot of precincts, you can change the outcome.”

Sponsors of the congressional district proposal contend California has become such a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections that candidates have stopped campaigning here.

“San Diego is different from L.A., it's different from the Bay Area, it's different from the Central Valley,” said initiative spokesman Kevin Eckery. “You have these large regions of voters who don't necessarily get their voices heard.

“The Electoral College isn't going away. The smaller states are never going to allow it. So you have to make it work better.”

The plan being pitched by Democrats as an alternative is essentially an end run around the Electoral College, which would take effect only if enough states agree to join in so that the winner of the popular vote would become president.

It's an idea that's gaining a measure of momentum, but it's a long way from fruition.

Schwarzenegger last year vetoed a bill to award California's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, saying it would “disregard the will of a majority of Californians.”

Maryland this year became the first state to pass a law designed to circumvent the Electoral College in this fashion. A similar law has passed in Illinois and is expected to be signed. Bills are pending in a number of state legislatures.

“It seems pretty clear to us that national popular vote is a far more popular proposal than trying to rig the Electoral College,” said Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane.

“I lived through Florida 2000,” said Lehane, who was a spokesman for the Gore campaign. “There is not a single office in the country except for the presidency that's not based on who gets the most votes.”

The third initiative that would apportion electoral votes based on the state's popular vote was filed by GOP political consultant Leo McElroy and two political unknowns, a Democrat and an independent.

Nebraska and Maine are the only states that allocate electoral votes by congressional district. The process hasn't changed the outcome: Neither state has split its electoral votes.

All of the electoral vote initiatives have been submitted to California Attorney General Jerry Brown's office, where they will be given a title and summary before being cleared for signature-gathering.

Sponsors will need to collect the valid signatures of 433,971 registered California voters to qualify for the June 3 primary election ballot.

Because the presidential nomination has been split off for a separate Feb. 5 primary, the June election is expected to generate a low turnout, which typically favors Republicans.

Political analyst Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state campaigns, said that whatever the merits of changing the electoral vote allocation system, they will be drowned out by the partisanship over the issue.

“The merits are one thing; the politics are something else,” Quinn said. “This thing guarantees the Republicans a 51st state the size of Ohio.”

Sponsors' contention that changing the allocation of electoral votes would make California more competitive is questionable because of the state's gerrymandered districts, which are heavily stacked in favor of one party or the other.

Statewide, the difference between the two major parties in partisan registration is 8.3 percentage points. The gap is smaller than that in only three of the 53 congressional districts.

In 2004, Bush carried all 19 congressional districts held by Republicans and three held by Democrats.

“It puts a premium on grass-roots, retail campaigning, instead of how many commercials can I run,” Eckery said. “It would turn around how people campaign here.”

What it means, countered Democrat Lehane, is that nobody would campaign in California at all.

“The single most important factor is allocation of a candidate's time,” Lehane said. “There's a reason candidates are in Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio. A candidate is not going to stop campaigning in Pennsylvania with 20 electoral votes to campaign in Merced with one electoral vote.”

Even if electoral votes were allocated by congressional district nationwide, it would not eliminate the possibility of a candidate winning the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

An analysis by the election watchdog group FairVote concluded that the 2000 imbalance would have been greater had the electoral votes been allocated by congressional districts nationally.

Gore won the 2000 popular vote by 0.52 percent, and Bush won the electoral vote by 0.93 percent. Had electoral votes been allocated by congressional district, Bush would have won by as much as 7.06 percent, the FairVote study found.