By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- California Republicans are floating a ballot initiative that would change how the state awards its 55 electoral votes, a whopping prize that Democrats have come over the past four presidential elections to regard as theirs.
Under the current format, the winner of the state's popular vote takes all electoral votes. The initiative proposes to award one electoral vote for every congressional district a candidate wins, with the statewide winner getting two more electoral votes.
Had such a system been in place in 2004, President Bush would have come out of California with 22 electoral votes instead of zero. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would have gotten only 33.
"It has a gut-level appeal to it," said Kevin Eckery, a GOP consultant supporting the initiative, which would be put before voters in June. "It sounds fair, and it is fair."
Democrats emphatically disagree and are mounting their own campaign to derail the initiative, which strategists say could easily alter the outcome of the 2008 contest.
"You're looking at between 19 and 22 votes that would shift to the Republican side," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist mobilizing against the proposal. "The electoral math becomes very challenging."
Only Maine and Nebraska currently assign electoral votes in the manner proposed in California. Colorado voters in 2004 soundly defeated a proposal to adopt the same system.
That plan was a brainchild of Colorado Democrats, who had seen all of their state's votes awarded to the Republican candidate in five of the previous six elections despite reliable Democratic showings in some districts.
"It failed miserably," said Craig Hughes, research director of RBI Strategy & Research, a Democratic consultancy. Hughes said the proposal was hurt by ambivalence among Democratic Party leaders, some of whom thought Kerry could carry the state. In addition, "voters take the electoral college very seriously," he said. "Going out and doing a one-state solution becomes very risky for voters, and they get very, very hesitant about voting for a massive change that has big implications. You could be tipping the presidential race."
Californians are only beginning to hear about the idea, but a statewide Field Poll this month found 47 percent favoring the change, with Democrats evenly split at first blush. Democratic support faded sharply when pollsters pointed out what the new system would have meant to the GOP in the last presidential election.
That made Republicans like the idea even more, of course, and at the close of questioning overall support for the change stood at 49 to 42.
"It's interesting," said Mark DiCamillo, the poll director. "Voters initially favor the idea out of a general sense of fairness. Winner-take-all seems extreme in most settings -- say, if you're allocating bonuses across a company."
But voters grow more partisan as they learn more, and California's long history of ballot initiatives suggests two major challenges, DiCamillo noted: It is much easier to mobilize a "no" campaign, and initiatives that start out with less than 50 percent support invariably fail. "A well-funded, crafty 'no' campaign usually can defeat a well-funded 'yes' campaign," he said. "I've seen it again and again. All you have to do is reframe the issue."
The proposal took an early hit Friday when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not endorse it. "In principle, I don't like to change the rules in the middle of the game," he said.
But supporters should benefit from another new wrinkle in California voting: To assure the Golden State an early voice, its presidential primary will take place Feb. 5. The electoral initiative would not appear on the ballot until June, when relatively low turnout for local primary contests might amplify the effect of motivated Republicans.
"The fact that they picked the June primary is not coincidental," Lehane said. "In addition to gaming the electoral college so they can rig it, they're also trying to game the election cycle."