Will California alter '08 race?

A GOP ballot initiative would end the winner-take-all system in presidential elections and apportion electoral votes by congressional district.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A new ballot initiative in California, calling to end the winner-take-all system for distributing the state's electoral votes in a presidential election, could alter the outcome of the 2008 race.

GOP strategists, who are pushing the measure, hope to boost the chances of Republican White House candidates in 2008 and beyond by mandating that California's jackpot of 55 electoral votes be apportioned by congressional district.

With the state having more than 10 percent of the 538 national total votes, the GOP would be buoyed by some 20 congressional districts that consistently vote Republican, experts say. Enacting such a change would be a blow to Democrats in left-leaning California, who count on the state's large pool of electoral votes in any scenario to win the presidency.

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"This has huge implications within the state but also nationally," says Tony Quinn, coeditor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of congressional and state legislative races.

President Bush lost California by 1.2 million votes in 2004, though he carried 22 of 53 congressional districts. If the districts he won had been equal to 22 electoral votes, Mr. Bush wouldn't have needed to win the crucial state of Ohio and could have spent time and resources elsewhere.

"We are talking about a regular change in favor of Republicans roughly equal to winning Ohio," says Mr. Quinn. "If this passes it will have tremendous impact.… Democrats are already shaking in their boots about it."

The move also seeks to bring more candidates into the state and ensure that they address more of California's issues. Earlier this year, the state advanced its presidential primary to February to gain more clout in the nomination process, aside from being a fundraising stop.

Aimed at the June 2008 ballot, the initiative was submitted last week to the state attorney general, Jerry Brown, and backers say fundraising is just beginning. The goal is to raise $300,000 to $500,000 for polling and other preliminary organizing before gathering signatures. It could cost $2 million to collect the needed 434,000 signatures, says Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the initiative.

"This is California saying we are tired of being the national ATM for every candidate coming out to raise funds in the spring and then disappearing by Labor Day when [candidates] go to other states when the real campaigning starts," says Mr. Eckery. He says backers want to create a better form of democracy. "We see flights of TV ads, but no candidates," says Eckery. Candidates will have to be on the ground all over the state talking to voters about immigration, farm and water issues that matter to voters here.

"Right now, Democrats can take California for granted, and Republicans can write it off. Accordingly we see little of the candidates after campaigning season," says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "With the [new] district plan, a number of California electoral votes would come into play.… Candidates would have to spend time and money here throughout the fall campaign."

Others remark about how monumental it would be for US elections if the initiative were enacted. "This is a huge deal if it passes because California would be the largest state with such a plan," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

But the current proposal may run into opposition because it is unfair as written, he says. The new plan, which amounts to a winner-take-all system in each congressional district, means that a vote in a lower voter-turnout district is worth more than a vote in a high-turnout district. A fairer system, Mr. Stern and others say, would give whichever candidate won a given percentage of votes, the same percentage of electoral votes.

Voter frustration with the electoral college system in the past two presidential elections has spurred several states, including Colorado, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida, to consider changing the current system. But if other states started following suit, any GOP advantage in California could be offset by Democratic gains in states such as Texas, experts say.

"States are beginning to tinker with electoral college reform," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

He notes that in April Maryland enacted a law requiring that the state's electoral votes go to the national popular vote winner only if states representing a majority of the nation's 538 electoral votes decided to make the same change. This year, Colorado attempted but failed to enact an electoral college reform plan.

In California, the measure's passage would probably be determined by voter turnout, and that could favor Republicans, experts say.

"The state will have just voted in February, and there is no US Senate race so June turnout will likely be low, which works against the Democrats," says Quinn. Democrats, who usually argue for more fairness in elections and the end of the electoral college system, are in a quandary over how to fight this, he says.

"The Democrats are being hoisted on their own petards," says Quinn. "They say, 'Let's make elections fairer,' and Republicans are saying, 'Okay, let's do it this way,' and Democrats are beside themselves because they know what it will likely do."

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