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California effort to alter '08 race stalls

The initiative promised to end the winner-take-all system. Now there's no money to solicit voter signatures.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2007

Los Angeles

California's Presidential Election Reform Act was supposed to end the state's winner-take-all jackpot (55 electoral votes) for presidential candidates.

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Because the proposed ballot initiative was likely to provide an unusual windfall for Republicans – perhaps as many as a third of the state's electoral votes – it sent Democrats into paroxysms when it was announced in August.

But just two weeks after activists began collecting signatures to meet a deadline at the end of November, two initiative leaders resigned Sept. 27, effectively shuttering operations.

"We have stopped gathering signatures because we have no money," says Mike Arno, head of a Sacramento, Calif.-based grass-roots firm that was hired to collect signatures.

What scared donors away is a story of political will unleashed by Democrats both in and out of California who opposed the initiative, political analysts say.

Early polls showed the measure had a respectable chance of success, with 47 percent supporting the idea and 35 percent opposing it, according to a California Field Poll taken in mid-August.

But before signature-gatherers hit the streets, the California Democratic Party took out TV, radio, and print ads against the proposal, which was unusual since it hadn't been vetted by voters. The state party sent out 800,000 e-mails to solicit an eventual army of 800 volunteers who went to petition sites and talked people out of signing.

"From Day 1, we were out on the field blasting everything they were doing – and it went down in flames in record time," says Bob Mulholland, spokesman for the California Democratic Party.

The Democrats' army of self-proclaimed "fraud busters" also lobbied newspaper editorial boards and bloggers, articulating why they believed it was a blatant power-grab.

The initiative would have required California's electoral votes to be distributed according to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. If the measure had passed, it probably would have changed the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, while creating a domino effect for other states to similarly rewrite their electoral rules, many political analysts said.

Eventually, 16 newspapers, including The New York Times, the San Diego Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange Country Register, and the Sacramento Bee, editorialized against it.

All the opposition publicity was impeding the effort, observers say. In a little more than 10 days, Mr. Arno's firm collected 100,000 signatures, 334,000 shy of what they would need by the end of November to qualify for the June 2008 ballot. And the campaign received just two checks – one for $175,000 and the other for $5,000, Arno says.