Dirty-trick initiative

In 2000, it was “hanging chads” in Florida. In 2004, it was a combination of “Swift Boat” attack ads and wayward “touch screen” voting machines in Ohio. In 2008, it may be the Presidential Election Reform Act initiative, the latest Republican dirty trick designed to tilt the playing field in favor of GOP presidential candidates and keep the White House under Republican control.

Petitions have just begun circulating for the initiative, and proponents will have until mid-January to collect the 434,000 signatures needed to put it on the ballot for a June 2008 vote. Given the players involved—a virtual “who’s who” of Republican Party powerbrokers, including state GOP attorney Tom Hiltachk, whose firm receives substantial backing ($65,000 over the past year) from a political action committee funded by Bob Perry, the Texas developer who financed the “Swift Boat” ads in 2004—we can expect to see an army of paid petition-gatherers working our street corners and parking lots soon. Democrats are vowing to oppose the measure with everything they have, ensuring that the initiative will be high-profile, bitterly fought and a key to the next presidential election.

That’s because the measure would change the way electoral votes are counted in California, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 42 to 34 percent. The state is virtually certain to award all 55 of its votes to a Democrat under the current “winner take all” system, but the initiative would change that by splitting votes among the state’s 53 congressional districts, awarding them on a district-by-district basis. Since Republicans represent 19 districts, it’s entirely plausible that the GOP candidate could lose the popular ballot in California by a wide margin yet still accumulate as many electoral votes here as they would by winning Ohio or Florida.

Needless to say, this would be outrageously unfair to the Democrats and to everyone who wants to see change in the White House in 2008. To alter the rules in one state in a way that dramatically favors one party isn’t Electoral College reform; it’s a dirty trick. We urge readers to refuse to sign petitions backing the initiative and to vote against it should it make the ballot in June.

At the same time, we’d like to encourage Democrats to take this opportunity to finally get serious about reforming the Electoral College, an antiquated system that has long since outlived whatever usefulness it had. It discourages third parties, gives disproportionate weight to votes cast in less populous states, and has resulted in the election of presidents who did not win the popular vote four separate times, including the 2000 election that gave us the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.

We’d like to see presidential elections determined by a simple, straightforward popular vote, even if that would require amending the Constitution. California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both support a more easily achieved compromise that would do the next best thing, establishing an agreement between states to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. We’d love to see them take this opportunity to put a better system in place before the Republicans make a bad thing even worse.