(CNN) - California voters are inclined to support a proposed ballot measure that Democratic leaders fear could doom the party's chances of winning back the White House in 2008 by giving Republicans a chunk of the state's large block of Electoral College votes, according to results of a poll released this week.
By a margin of 47 percent to 35 percent, the Field Poll found voters supported a GOP-inspired ballot measure replacing the state's winner-take-all method for awarding electoral votes with a system that would give one vote to the candidate who won the most votes in each of the state's 53 congressional districts and two votes to the statewide winner.
Had that system been in place in 2004, President Bush, who lost California to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, would still have captured 22 of the state's 55 electoral votes. Under the winner-take-all system, Kerry got them all.
The proposed change would be damaging to Democrats, who have come to rely on California's block of votes - the largest haul available in any state - as part of their arithmetic to get to an Electoral College majority. For instance, in 2004, if Bush had taken those 22 California electoral votes, he would not have needed to carry the pivotal state of Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, to go over the top.
"This would all but guarantee that the Republican nominee would get 20 extra Electoral College votes, which could certainly impact the outcome of the election," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist.
And that is exactly what has Democrats crying foul.
"The Republicans are doing this in California because they want a chunk of our vote," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist.
The Field Poll found that when voters were told of the possible political implications of the ballot measure, support shot up among Republicans and dropped among Democrats, and the margin of support narrowed. Overall, though, supporters still outnumbered opponents, by a margin of 49 percent to 42 percent, with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
A group called Californians for Equal Representation is trying to qualify the initiative for next June's statewide primary, which would put the change into effect for the 2008 election. To get the question on the ballot, supporters will have to collect about 424,000 petition signatures from registered voters by Nov. 13, according to the Secretary of State's office.
Collecting enough signatures to qualify a statewide initiative "takes about a million dollars," Sragow said. However, under state law, there are no contribution limits for ballot measure campaigns, which makes it easier to raise large amounts of money.
The initiative was submitted by Thomas Hiltachk, a Sacramento election lawyer who is also general counsel for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The purpose of the change, according to the language in the initiative, is to make California more relevant in presidential elections by forcing candidates to campaign in the state, which a Republican hasn't carried since 1988.
Under the Constitution, each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its representation in Congress, including both representatives and senators, and the District of Columbia gets three. State governments decide how to award those votes, and 48 states give all of them to the candidate who wins the largest number of popular votes, as does the District of Columbia.
Two states - Nebraska and Maine - have adopted the system that is being proposed for California, assigning their electoral votes based on who wins individual congressional districts, with the statewide winner getting the two votes derived from senators. But this has not generated controversy because both states have just a handful of votes and the results have never resulted in splitting them between candidates.
The disputed 2000 election, in which Bush won the electoral vote - and the presidency - while losing the popular vote, has generated a flurry of proposals to abolish or alter the Electoral College, both at the federal and state level.
In 2006, Colorado voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have divided up the electoral vote pie in proportion to each candidates' share of the popular vote. Also, a group called National Popular Vote is lobbying state legislatures to adopt a system where all of a state's electoral votes would be pledged to the winner of the national popular vote, which, if enough states adopt the plan, would ensure the popular vote winner always became president.
A group of California Democrats are trying to counter the GOP-backed ballot measure with a proposition of their own that would implement the National Popular Vote plan in the Golden State, as long as states with a majority of the electoral votes also agree to use the same system.
However, the political implications of that change could be even worse for Democrats. If that method had been in place in 2004, Bush, as the winner of the national popular vote, would have taken all 55 of California's electoral votes, despite the fact that Kerry beat him by 10 points statewide.