Mission implausible

Republicans launch a piecemeal reform movement to capture California’s electoral votes

John Benoit wants to change the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College—but only in California.

John Benoit wants to change the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College—but only in California.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Palm Desert Assemblyman John Benoit is on a mission. Along with fellow conservative Republican Tom Harman, he is leading the charge in Sacramento to introduce legislation “reforming” California’s Electoral College system.

Benoit isn’t alone in believing the Electoral College to be deeply flawed. After all, in 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote yet was elected to the White House because of a slightly skewed distribution of Electoral College votes. In the years since then, many reformers have called for either proportional distribution of Electoral College delegates nationwide or an outright abolition of the system and instead direct popular elections for the presidency. Nationally, in fact, California Senator Dianne Feinstein has proposed just such a transformation.

Yet, Benoit very deliberately has steered clear of calling for change at a national level. For him, the sole issue of concern is the way California allocates its Electoral College delegates.

If Benoit—who was a Highway Patrol commander for more than 30 years before being elected to the Assembly in 2002—has his way, while most of the rest of the country retains a winner-take-all system, next time Californians go to the polls to elect the president, they will be doing so under an Electoral College procedure that awards delegates by congressional district. To be precise, California’s 53 districts each would elect a delegate, and two at-large delegates then would be awarded to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

The only other states with a similar system are Maine and Nebraska. (A much-publicized referendum to reform Colorado’s system in a like manner was defeated in November.)

The assemblyman argues that such a change would “make Californians’ votes relevant and would bring about a situation where the candidates campaign in California,” having to scrap for every vote in all the tightly contested congressional districts in the state. Closely contested counties thus would become magnets for politicians and for campaign money in much the same way as states like Ohio and Florida were in the recently concluded election.

Moreover, he posits, it would force the president to distribute largesse to Californian political operatives, resulting in more senior administration posts being held by Californians and, as a result, the state wielding more influence over national politics.

Benoit’s spokesman, Barry Nestande, claims the assemblyman’s office is trying to reach out to the White House, seeking the input of national GOP figures like Karl Rove, hoping to convince them this is a battle worth entering. “We do have connections with Karl Rove and a lot of the Bush folks at the White House,” Nestande states. He also asserts that they are actively looking to set up meetings with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to promote the bill.

On January 6, the legislation, Assembly Bill 2, was referred to the Committee on Elections and Redistricting, where it is likely to be debated in the spring.

As the reform discussion has gathered steam in recent weeks, Benoit says, the Greens and other small third parties are beginning to express support for his proposal, declaring a proportional system to be fairer and also calculating that it’s perhaps their only realistic shot at ever gathering any Electoral College delegates. So far, however, senior political figures in Sacramento noticeably have not flocked to support it.

Absent from the discussion, however, has been an analysis of a deeper problem: Because politicians from both sides of the aisle have so finely gerrymandered district boundaries in recent years, few congressional districts actually remain politically competitive. Thus, it’s possible that while changing the Electoral College in the way proposed by Benoit and Harman would result in a more proportionate distribution of delegates, it might not force the candidates to campaign very hard to win those delegates. Instead of voters being taken for granted because they live in politically noncompetitive states like California, they could well find themselves equally taken for granted by virtue of living in congressional districts expressly designed to be noncompetitive.

Be that as it may, simply by diluting the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, the legislation poses a mortal threat to Democrats. Thus, barring a tectonic political shift in the near future, it’s almost certain A.B. 2 will die in committee at the hands of Democratic legislators terrified of what the change would do to their party’s presidential prospects in future elections. After all, in 2004, John Kerry won California by 1.2 million votes, claiming all 55 of the state’s Electoral College votes practically without having to campaign for them. Introduce a proportional system, and about 20 of these electoral votes melt away into the Republican camp.

Reforming the Electoral College system nationally would, indeed, force both political parties to campaign hard across the country, no longer taking for granted the votes of the tens of millions of Americans who live in politically noncompetitive states. But changing the law only in California would shred the Democrats’ electoral golden goose while leaving Republican strongholds like Texas entirely in GOP hands. It is, in other words, a recipe for electoral disaster for the Democratic Party and one the party’s leadership therefore will try to maneuver into oblivion.

“Message to Republicans: Start in Texas,” says Democratic campaign adviser Bob Mulholland angrily. “If the Republicans pass it in Texas, then they should come back and talk about it. Until then, we’ve got other things to work on. It’s a silly proposal by losers.” If the Republicans truly were interested in reflecting the will of the people, argues Mulholland, they would support the sort of national reform proposed by Feinstein. “Get rid of the Electoral College,” he urges. “It’s ridiculous. Why do we have it? It was proposed by a group of wealthy white males who didn’t trust the peasants. Well, there are no peasants left in America—[today] they’re called voters.”

For Benoit, however, A.B. 2 is merely a first step that’s designed to test the waters. He knows the bill is almost certain to get killed in committee. But, he says, he hopes to build momentum for years to come. He is trying to interest Schwarzenegger in the issue, and, he says, if the Legislature won’t vote on his bill, he’s likely to push for a ballot initiative in 2008.

If the public ultimately does vote to pass such a change, then, despite Benoit’s protestations that he’s only interested in changing California’s system, it could well trigger a rush countrywide, as legislators and political operatives from coast to coast look for ways to best defend and expand their Electoral College blocs.

Such a scramble doesn’t concern Benoit. “This is a high priority,” the desert Republican asserts. “It’s a disservice to all Californians to be left out in the cold.”