In defense of 55 electoral votes

Published August 20th 2007 in The San Francisco Chronicle

AMERICANS DON'T like the Electoral College. It's unwieldy, it seems anti-democratic and it has given rise to one of the more despicable facts of modern presidential campaigning: rather than addressing the concerns of the entire country, major-party candidates choose to do most of their post-primary campaigning in just a few battleground states - Ohio and Florida happen to be the most popular ones right now. So, in the face of a proposed California ballot measure that means to erode it, allow us to explain why the Electoral College system is worth defending - at least until someone comes up with a nonpartisan, effective means of abolishing it.

The ballot measure, known right now only as No. 07-0032, was filed by Thomas W. Hiltachk, managing partner of Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk. This is the law firm for the California Republican Party. The measure would do away with the custom of awarding all of California's 55 electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Instead, 2 electoral votes would be given to the statewide winner and the rest would be given to whoever won in each of 53 congressional districts. Because 19 of California's 53 districts are represented by Republicans, and 22 districts voted for President Bush in 2004, this initiative would probably offer around 20 electoral votes to a Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

"What can be more fair than this?" said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for Californians for Equal Representation, which is the nominal entity sponsoring the initiative. "Everyone's voice is going to be heard. It could even help third-party candidates, like the Green Party, in a place like San Francisco."

Please. This is nothing but dirty politics. Nor are snatch-and-grab initiatives just like this one the sole province of Republican interests. In 2004, Colorado voters rejected a similar initiative that would've benefited the Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry. (President Bush beat Kerry 52 to 42 percent, but had the initiative passed, Kerry would've gotten 4 electoral votes to Bush's 5.) Colorado voters, who initially supported the measure, realized a couple of things that Californians must come to recognize should No. 07-0032 make it onto our June 3 ballot:

-- Splitting the number of electoral votes a candidate can win from any one state is highly unlikely to motivate them to spend more time here, and

-- Measures such as this are useless and, usually, highly partisan, unless the entire country adopts them.

That's why any credible measure to reform the Electoral College - and there have been hundreds of them, nearly all as flawed as the existing system - must be launched on a national level, preferably by a disinterested party.

For instance, the efforts of John Koza - a genetic programming professor at Stanford University - to circumvent the Electoral College in favor of having each state ensure its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote merit attention. This isn't because his idea is perfect (it's certainly not). But what's worth noting are the facts that he spearheaded a national movement (his group, National Popular Vote, has found 364 sponsors for bills in 47 states) and that Koza has fought hard to appeal to both political parties. (He's been a Democratic elector, but he's enthusiastically sought out Republican bill sponsors.) Koza understands that democracy can only work if everyone agrees to play by the same rules - and at the same time.

Would that the sponsors of No. 07-0032 felt the same way. To qualify for the June 3 primary ballot - a ballot that is expected to have low turnout, now that the Legislature has moved the presidential primary portion to Feb. 5 - they must collect more than 400,000 valid signatures. (Eckery said that, to be safe, they'll need to collect a figure in the range of 700,000.) If the California Republican Party jumps in with money and support, California voters must consider who this measure will truly benefit - we promise that it's not them.

Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.