California seeks a brighter place in the sun in presidential election

By Nancy Vogel
Published May 30th 2006 in Los Angeles Times
Seeking to force presidential candidates to pay attention to California’s 15.5 million voters, state lawmakers on Tuesday jumped aboard a new effort that would award electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide.

As it is now, California grants its Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state. Practically speaking, that means that Democrat-dominated California spends the fall presidential campaign on the sidelines as candidates focus on the states -- mostly in the upper Midwest --that are truly up for grabs.

Under a bill passed by the Assembly, California would join an interstate compact, under which states would agree to cast their electoral votes not for the winner in their jurisdiction but nationwide. Proponents argue that would force candidates to broaden their reach to major population centers such as California.

The bill is part of a three-month-old movement driven by a Bay Area lawyer and Stanford University computer science professor. The same 888-word bill is now pending in four other states and expected to be introduced in every state by January 2007, its sponsors say. The legislation would not go into effect until enough states pass such laws to make up a majority of the Electoral College votes -- a minimum of 13 states, depending upon population.

“This is a bill that would allow California to be able to play a role in presidential elections,” said Barry Fadem, the Lafayette lawyer spearheading the drive. Now, because the state is largely ignored, he said, “A vote in California is not equal to a vote in Ohio and everyone would concede that.”

The bill, by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Umberg, cleared the Assembly 49-31 with a single Republican vote from Republican Assemblyman Rick Keene. To become law it must be passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Fadem said he was surprised by the partisan divide in the Assembly vote. In the New York legislature Republicans introduced the bill, he said, and they support it in Illinois, Missouri and Colorado.

But Republican Assembly members warned that the bill would empower big cities -- whose residents tend to vote for Democrats -- at the expense of small states.

“Small states suffer here,” said Republican Assemblyman Michael Villines. “Yes, California is a big state. But I don’t want a candidate to go to 10, 12 big urban centers, win a majority and walk away with the presidency.”

“This would simply say if you’re in Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Boston ... you can elect the president,” said Villines.

The U.S. Constitution dictates that presidents are elected by an Electoral College in which every state gets a number of votes equal to the state’s congressional districts plus two. The political parties in each state choose a group of delegates equal to the number of the state’s electoral votes. The delegates of the party whose presidential candidate gets the most votes statewide in the November general election then cast their electoral votes, usually by gathering at the state capitol in December. Electoral votes from across the country are sealed and sent to Congress, and the candidate with more than half of the total is declared president.

The Constitution gives states discretion in how they award Electoral College votes and also provides for binding contracts among states.

There are 538 electoral votes, and they change among states each decade depending upon population shifts. California has 55 electoral votes, the most of any state.Although some Republicans called the Umberg bill a “scheme” for getting around the arduous job of amending the U.S. Constitution, Fadem said the framework for such a compact is built into the Constitution.

Fadem, who specializes in ballot measures, wrote the 1984 initiative that created California’s lottery. He and computer scientist John Koza, who helped invent lottery scratch-off tickets, have written a book making the case for a national popular vote called “Every Vote Equal.” Supporters of their effort include former independent presidential candidate John Anderson and former Republican congressman Tom Campbell of California.