August 24th, 2007
09:16 AM ET
15 years ago

California voters could alter 2008 race

Watch CNN's Bill Schneider report how California may throw the 2008 presidential race a major wildcard.

(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.

Filed under: Race to '08
soundoff (116 Responses)
  1. Dave, Encinitas, CA

    Democrats should pay attention and learn from Republican strategists. This is a really good move for the Republican party – if successful it pulls the teeth from California in the general election, and if not it still ensures that Democrats will need to waste resources fighting it.

    As others have stated, it is not really fair unless other states such as Texas adopt similar rules. But we all know that fairness is not a Republican interest, and that changing the rules as required to win is considered ok. Republican – the party of morals and family values. Time for Democrats to wake up.

    August 25, 2007 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  2. Arsene Lupien, Montreal, Canada

    I see this man McCain as more and more irrelevant.

    August 25, 2007 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  3. David, Salinas, CA

    The suggestion (by several posters) that eliminating the Electoral College and electing the President by popular vote would somehow throw all political power to larger states and cities is erroneous. The whole point of counting all the votes equally is that for the purposes of national balloting, state borders would cease to matter. Certainly candidates would focus on the larger media markets. They do that now. Rural areas (other than Iowa) get short shrift because there are fewer voters there. This is true within big states as well as small ones. But in a world of mass media every American voter has as much access to candidates as any other. Personal contact isn’t really a factor anymore, except for producing sound bites. No candidate can shake 100 million hands. I’ve voted in every election since 1976 and never met one of the candidates. But my votes in California have never been counted equally with those of voters in Nevada or Rhode Island or Kansas. That undemocratic policy put our current failed administration into power. I’d like to see it changed.

    August 25, 2007 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  4. Michael Dallas Texas

    I wish they would get rid of the electoral vote. Why vote if your vote doesn't count. In true Democratic system every vote should count. The system now with the electoral vote and popular vote? The popular vote doesn't matter but it should.

    August 25, 2007 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  5. Michael Grove, Ridgecrest California

    It's about time that Red demographics of California have the opportunity to be recognized. Areas which hold little significance, such as San Francisco, over Southern California would justly suffer from years of nondescript political representation of false masses. Californians have carried a stereotypical badge long enough, it’s time way over due for the rest of the Union to see the real diversity that exist here. The States populist is easily large enough to represent both parties, and then some.

    August 26, 2007 02:53 am at 2:53 am |
  6. rangersfc

    Since the start of this Bush Administration, I am not sure that I would trust any policy put forward by the Republican Party.

    This is so obviously a last ditch effort to retain control of the White House by any means possible. Democracy, The Law, Liberty and Freedom have all been thrown to the wind as these despots cling to money and power.

    As was stated earlier, there are three choices:

    1. The system stays the same.
    2. All states switch to the system being proposed for California.
    3. Use the popular vote method. Everyone in the US gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes becomes president.

    August 26, 2007 06:29 am at 6:29 am |
  7. Craig Jamesburg, NJ

    My favorite comment so far in this thread is the one by Miland Brown. He wants to re-draw the districts to be 'more balanced', so Democrats always win all fifty five state votes. Seems quite the contradictory statement no?
    Also folks let's not forget that Clinton too lost the popular vote in 1996, yet I don't hear any of you crying foul about that.
    Since California is looking to give more power back to the voters state-wide you would rather not because ~gasp~ people with different views than yourselves might have say too?!?!?
    It's quite a fascist view many of you have, you only want the popular vote to count more when it works in the Dems favor.
    Remember folks the way the election shook out last time isn't exactly how it will shake out for every election going forward, and thankfully Bush is gone next year no matter how California's votes are handed out.

    August 26, 2007 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  8. Mark, Davidson, NC

    Several folks have suggested that this would be an appropriate way to go–dividing electoral votes by congressional district–but in order to be fair, it would have to be applied entirely across the board (all 50 states) and redistricting would have to be taken out of partisan hands. Let me give you a concrete example of how this system could be incredibly unfair and in fact damaging to our democracy. John Kerry won the state of Michigan fairly decisively in 2004, 51-48%, basically a reverse of the national popular vote. Therefore, he won all of Michigan's 17 electoral votes. However, if Michigan had had the system in place that NE and ME have (and now possibly CA will soon have) John Kerry would still have won the popular vote by that fairly decisive margin, but he would have only taken 7 electoral votes, while George Bush would have taken 10. This is because Michigan's districts were constructed very carefully by its Republican legislature to pack Democratic voters into a few districts, thereby maximizing the number of possible Republican House members. The same situation is present in Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, etc. Surely no one, not even the most partisan observer, would think it fair that one candidate wins a state while the losing candidate takes the majority of that state's electoral votes. Yet that is exactly where we'd be headed.

    If we really want to go down this road, every state should also adopt Iowa's model of totally non-partisan redistricting, conducted without an eye to political gain or incumbent protection. Then, at least, everyone would be on an even footing. But somehow I don't foresee that happening any time soon.

    August 26, 2007 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  9. Jeff, Richmond, VA

    Leave it to the Republicans to try to bend/change the rules so they can hold power. These people just don't know how to be good losers, do they? The entire party has adopted Richard Nixon-esque morals and strategies to try to stay in power. They don't care about Democracy. The modern day Republican party is the most un-American entity that exists in the U.S. today. What ever happenned to putting the country first? They know nothing of sacrifice, unless it's sacrificing poor soldiers' lives for the Republican's own personal egotisical purposes. Bush and Cheney ought to be tried for high crimes against the State.

    August 26, 2007 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  10. Peter, Wausau, WI

    I think that this should be how it works in every state, since it would do more to ensure that every voter's opinion is counted. Under the current system, if a candidate receives 51% of the votes, what about the other 49%?

    August 26, 2007 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  11. David, Salinas, CA

    Craig of Jamesburg, NJ writes:

    “Also folks let's not forget that Clinton too lost the popular vote in 1996, yet I don't hear any of you crying foul about that.”

    For the record, the popular vote in the 1996 election was:

    Bill Clinton 47,400,125
    Bob Dole: 39,198,755

    In this modern world of search engines, how much effort does it really take to check our facts?
    Name-calling and invented statistics do not advance the American political dialogue.

    August 26, 2007 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  12. Ron Nebraska

    Only in the Repug bizarro world is a Dem win by more than 7 million votes a loss. Staggering!!!

    August 26, 2007 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  13. Lee - Ontario, Ca.

    This is a great initiative! It's about time that California really matter. This will make it more fair and thus not waste half the State votes. Let's apss this one 🙂

    August 27, 2007 05:47 am at 5:47 am |
  14. Jon, Sacramento ~ Ca

    "Leave it to the Republicans to try to bend/change the rules so they can hold power."

    ~ Jeff, Richmond, VA

    – – – – – – –

    Jeff (and anyone else crying it's a "Republican trick"),

    The ENTIRE state of California (Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Green-Party, etc) would vote on this initiative. It doesn't matter if you people living in other states like it, hate it, agree or disagree – YOU'RE NOT A CALIFORNIA VOTER.

    It's really amazing to see the lack of understanding about how this country became a Union – and the emphasis on preserving States' Rights.

    The majority of Americans learned about "Impeachment" thanks to President Clinton. Perhaps this initiative will teach many about States' Rights.

    August 27, 2007 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  15. Wayne, San Francisco, CA

    Craig Jamesburg, NJ:

    Clinton won the popular vote in both of his elections. IN FACT, the only presidents to lose the popular vote but still win the presidency were:

    Adams, JQ, 1824
    Hayes, 1876
    Harrison, 1888
    Bush, GW, 2000

    Please check your facts before posting. Thank you.

    August 27, 2007 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  16. Jason Gold, Huntington Beach, CA

    As a California voter, I disagree with this proposition in that it will reduce California's clout in presidential elections. We have 10% of the population of this country. Assuming we voted 50% Rpublican and 50% Democratic, the electoral vote would be split down the middle. This would give us less of an electoral footprint than states with tiny populations, such as Maine.

    In terms of the needs of this state for clout in the Oval Office, it would make us a nullity. Unless the US abolishes the electoral college, this State should not split its vote.

    September 21, 2007 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
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