Besides the Leno-Migden fight in San Francisco, the June 2006 primary should be a real sleeper in California. And a low voter turnout statewide causes huge risks of right-wing propositions sailing through. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association has already planned to put a ballot measure in June to end rent control, and expect the religious right to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on the same ballot. Now Republicans are planning to put a proposition that would apportion California’s 53 electoral votes in presidential elections by Congressional district – rather than a “winner-take-all” system used in 48 states. While at first this doesn’t sound bad, if passed it could help elect a Republican President – even if a Democrat wins the popular vote. There are a lot of ways to fix the Electoral College, but unilateral action by California to change the system will only play into right-wing hands.

I’ve known about this measure for a while, but I’ve avoided discussing it because I generally agree with the principle. It is fundamentally unfair that a plurality of a state’s residents can award all of its Electoral Votes to one candidate. If you’re a black person in Mississippi who votes Democrat, you have no say in the presidential election. A strong majority of your white neighbors vote Republican every time – which guarantees the state’s electoral votes to the G.O.P.

The problem with this measure is that California – and only California – would shift from a “winner-take-all” system to having its Electoral Votes apportioned by Congressional District. I might support it if it was done nationwide, so that Democratic voters in red states like Texas could have their votes counted in the presidential election. But under the June ballot proposal, only California Republicans – and no other minority groups – would benefit. That’s unfair, when the Electoral College is ultimately a number’s game that adds up every state's votes.

California is a deep blue state, but has 19 Congressional districts that reliably vote Republican. If this measure were to pass, the practical effect for the November 2008 election is that the Republican nominee will get an extra 19 electoral votes – with no corresponding “benefit” for the Democrat coming from other parts of the country. A shift of 19 electoral votes would have tipped the outcome of the last two presidential elections.

But there’s another problem with counting electoral votes by Congressional District, even if done nationwide. Districts are drawn by state legislatures, and most of them have carved the boundaries for maximum political benefit. While California drew its lines to give each party “safe seats,” in Texas former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay masterminded a hyper-partisan mid-decade re-districting to elect more Republicans to Congress.

Most state legislatures in recent years were controlled by Republicans, and the post-2000 re-districting was fundamentally flawed. Georgia Republicans pulled off similar mid-decade shenanigans as in Texas, and they tried in Colorado until the courts stepped in. Lines in Florida and Michigan are also skewed. It’s remarkable that Democrats even took back Congress last year – given Republican gerrymandering in so many states.

Only two states apportion their Electoral Votes by Congressional District (Nebraska and Maine), but they are small states where it has never made a difference. Nebraska is so Republican that it has never given less than all of its electoral votes to one candidate. And only once in Maine history did a presidential candidate win an Electoral Vote by Congressional District – Andrew Jackson in 1828, while John Quincy Adams won the rest of the state.

Applying a similar system to California would be a totally different story. California is a mega-state, and it will guarantee a large number of electoral votes for the Republican presidential nominee. 2008 will be an extremely important election – we simply can’t afford to let the Republicans steal the White House again.

So what’s the long-term strategy? Ditch the Electoral College, and award the presidency to whichever candidate wins the popular vote. If we had done that in 2000, Al Gore would be President today – notwithstanding any shenanigans in Florida. Democrats are now collecting signature for another June proposition – one that would commit the state to give its electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote nationwide.

I’m not quite sold on that proposal. Under such a system, California would have awarded all of its Electoral Votes in 2004 to George Bush. But it probably won’t do any active harm in 2008 the way that the Republican proposition would risk doing. And that proposition must be prioritized for defeat.

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