By: Brian Sikma
Recently I heard about a proposal by California Republicans to change their state’s electoral vote allocation system so a Republican presidential candidate would be the benefactor. The California gold rush may be long over, but the state is still a big claim for Democratic presidential candidates. With 55 electoral votes in play, California is a key part of Democratic presidential politics. There is no other single state prize as large as California and if Republicans could slice into that prize it would definitely help them. The only thing “new” about this proposal is the fact that it focuses on the 2008 presidential election. In reality this plan has been proposed in several states, including Indiana, and has thus far met with failure. As it now stands, the presidential candidate who wins the majority vote-popular vote-within California wins all of the state’s 55 electors. The winner takes all, the loser takes none. Even if the “losing” candidate has 49.9% of the vote, if his opponent had 50.1% the opponent gets the prize. Under the current proposal, whichever candidate won the majority vote in each of the 53 congressional districts would take that districts vote. The two senate based votes would then be given to the candidate who won the statewide popular vote. The theory isn’t that Republicans could win California, just that they could peel off enough votes from the Democrats to hopefully overcome any disadvantage in a swing state such as Ohio or Florida.
Here’s the math: In 2004 John Kerry handily carried California and won it’s 55 electoral votes (you need 270 or more to win the presidency). If the proposed system of allocation had been in place Mr. Bush would have carried 22 of the state’s votes. The remaining 33 votes would have gone to Mr. Kerry. As you may recall, Ohio was crucial to the Bush re-election campaign in 2004. Ohio has 21 votes. Assuming that President Bush carried 22 California votes this would have meant that even if Mr. Kerry did win Ohio, President Bush would have won re-election.
That math, combined with the argument that California needs to be more relevant in the national presidential campaign, is what is driving California Republicans in the direction they’re going. To get the plan in place for the 2008 presidential election the proposal must be approved on the ’08 primary ballot. To reach that primary ballot, supporters need to muster 434,00o signatures before November 13th.
While liberals like Indiana’s former Senator Birch Bayh (D) have been pushing for this kind of a proposal for awhile, it’s rather interesting to see Republicans being the initiators of this plan in California. States like California can possibly afford to split their electoral votes up since they usually dominate presidential politics anyway (yes, California has gone Democrat fairly often but Reagan proved that a conservative Republican could win the state). Although the idea of eliminating or abridging the Electoral College has been promoted from time to time, that does not lessen the fact that we must seriously consider the result of such a major sea-change in our national election mechanism.
We need to understand the basis for why we have the Electoral College in the first place. Did our founding fathers develop it to be a temporary system or did they devise it to be a lasting mechanism for electing an executive? The system has undergone some changes since it was first ratified and then used by George Washington. One of the most notable changes was the modification that allowed presidential and vice-presidential candidates to run on the same ticket. Notwithstanding the minor “tactical” changes made to the system, the larger more fundamental “strategic” elements remain the same today. The purpose of the Electoral College was not to empower a bare majority of the population to elect an executive (majority rule belongs to the House of Representatives).
The purpose of the Electoral College was to balance state sovereignty with majority rule in such a way as to require citizens to make their collective voice known through the medium of their state. This is an important concept since many of the founders were worried that if a bare national popular vote majority were allowed to elect a president, then such a president could conceivably be elected by paying attention only to the concerns of large population centers. If large numbers of votes were not to be found in more rural and less-populated areas, then the concern was that candidates would not worry themselves with the concerns of this part of the population. As it now stands, the Electoral College requires candidates to consider the interests of each state (and thus the interests of the individual citizens of that state) when they seek the presidency. What about those states that go reliably for one party (Indiana has consistently gone Republican for quite a few cycles), do individual voters still have a role in the election? The answer is yes because if the normally winning party fails to consider its base, then independent voters will join with non-normally winning voters to form a new majority that will swing the state for the opposition.
In sum, regardless of whether or not California’s change would benefit Republicans, we need to look beyond the short-term gains made by winning a few electoral votes and towards the longer-term consequences of chipping away at the Electoral College. The fact that two states have already split up their electoral votes does not mean that we need a third state to do the same.