Can Democrats Win the White House without Washington and Oregon?

Republicans, in fear of being sucked under by the anti-Bush whirlpool, are looking desperately for ways to win the White House in 2008.

Republicans in California think the answer is to change the rules for next year’s Presidential election. Their strategy is to change California’s statewide winner take all primary with its 55 electoral votes to one allocating the votes based on who wins individual Congressional District votes.

Except for Maine (4 electoral votes) and Nebraska (5 electoral votes) states currently allocate their electoral college votes by a winner take all process statewide. Each state is allocated 2 votes for their 2 Senators and 1 vote for each Representative.

Currently 19 of California’s Congressional Districts are held by Republicans. In 2004 John Kerry won the statewide vote over Bush by 54% to 44%. However Bush won majorities in 22 of California’s 53 Congressional Districts.

Changing how California allocates its electoral votes would be the equivalent to transferring the combined vote of Washington (11 electoral votes)and Oregon (7 electoral votes) to the Republican column. Remember Ohio’s 20 electoral votes – we’re talking about a sizable impact if the Republicans proposed change in California is successful.

According to the LA Times a California Republican group is pushing the “Presidential Election Reform Act Initiative” for the June 2008 California Primary ballot. If passed by voters it would change significantly change the 2008 Presidential election.

“We’ve hit the mother lode of political interest,” said Republican consultant Kevin Eckery, part of the group pushing the Presidential Election Reform Act Initiative.

The measure was written by attorney Thomas Hiltachk, whose Sacramento firm represents the California Republican Party. Also backing the initiative is campaign strategist Marty Wilson, a fundraiser last year for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Neither Schwarzenegger nor any of the presidential candidates has signed on to the effort. Nor is there confirmed financial backing; Eckery said the fundraising to begin this week is aimed at getting $300,000 to $500,000 for polling and other preliminary work before signature-gathering. Collecting the necessary 434,000 signatures could cost $2 million.

Proponents are optimistic that backers of the presidential candidates will ante up. Though there are federal limits to donations to candidates, California law places no bar on the amount donors can spend on initiatives.

Can California do this? Yes they can. Each individual state and not the Federal Constitution determines how electoral votes are determined. Hiltachk has filed the text of the Presidential Election Reform Initiative with the California Secretary of State on July 17, 2007. He has paid his $200 filing fee and is awaiting the assignment of a ballot tile and summary. He filed in the name of “Californians for Equal Representation” based in Sacramento, California.

Of course no similar effort is slated for decidedly Republican states like Texas which has 34 electoral votes. Altering the rules in specific Democratic states like California to benefit Republican Presidential ambitions is totally in character for Republicans and is a serious threat to Democrats in 2008.

You only need to look at two recent instances where Republicans used the legislative and electoral process to change rules and commonly accepted legal procedures to benefit Republicans. One was the Republican recall campaign of Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003 which resulted in Davis’s recall and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor.

The New Yorker in an article entitled Votescam by Hendrick Hertzberg in fact reports that California Republican Hiltachk was involved in the recall effort that put Schwarzenegger into office and that he is “Governor Schwarzenegger’s personal lawyer for election matters.”

The other was the effort by Texas Republicans with the aid of Congressman Tom DeLay to redraw the Congressional District boundaries in Texas to gain Republican seats in Congress

Texas Republicans and Delay did their controversial redistricting action after they won control of the Texas Legislature in 2002. In 2004 the Congressional District numbers shifted dramatically. A 17/15 Democrat advantage changed to a 21/11 Republican advantage. In 2006 the Republicans still had a 19/13 advantage.

Distributing electoral votes to winners of Congressional Districts rather than winner take all state votes would seem at first look to be fair if every state had the same rules. But that would clearly not be the case if California alone shifted the way it proportions its electoral votes. The end result would be to shift electoral votes to the Republicans at the expense of the Democrats. Its like spotting the Republicans some 20 electoral votes before the counting even starts.

Would the proposal solve the problem of states clearly being Republican or Democratic and being ignored by the candidates because the outcome is not really in doubt? Actually it would probably make it even worse. You just need to look at the last Congressional campaign in 2006. National attention and money was focused into only 30 -40 battleground Congressional districts.

Would candidates really campaign all over Ohio for example? No – they would concentrate their resources in the much smaller geographical areas of contested battleground Congressional Districts up for grabs in Ohio. They would not be very smart if they spent their time in Congressional Districts that are clearly Republican or Democratic and unlikely to change.

Here in Washington State the biggest spending Congressional race was between Darcy Burner and Dave Reichert in the 8th C.D. Not much attention was paid to Congressman Jim McDermott’s race in Seattle. If electoral votes were allocated by Congressional District, Presidential candidates would go to Bellevue, not Seattle or Everett or Yakima.

Another alternative being considered by some states is a movement to elect the President by popular vote. Such a bill was before the Washington State Legislature this last session. As proposed the legislation would not go into effect until states with a majority of electoral votes (270) passes the legislation. Maryland is the first state to pass such legislation.

See also:
Newsweek “A Red Play for the Golden State”
Sacramento Bee “Electoral System Initiative worries Dems”

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