Popular mechanics

California throws its weight behind Electoral College reform

Could California help put a Republican in the White House? A movement has been under way for a decade to turn the Electoral College into a more direct democracy.

Reformers often point to 2000, when Al Gore won the most popular votes, but lost the election because George W. Bush won the most Electoral College votes. That scenario would be impossible under a National Popular Vote system.

The NPV campaign got a big boost this summer when California signed on. The state effectively pledged its electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote—even if Californians vote for the other candidate.

About halfway to their goal, NPV supporters say their arrangement would make every person’s vote matter, while opponents say they’re meddling with the Constitution.

Advocates say the current winner-take-all system means an Ohioan’s vote is worth more than a Californian’s.

That’s because instead of campaigning in solidly red or blue states, like California, candidates pour their resources into purple states, like Ohio, where they have a shot at tipping the scales.

“The main motivation for me is, California is the largest state in the union, and it is being ignored in every presidential election,” said state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who authored California’s version of the National Popular Vote bill. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in August.

Hill says under the proposed system, candidates would have to fight for votes all across the country in order to win over a majority of the electorate—and not just in battleground states, where picking up a few thousand swing votes would give a candidate all of the state’s electoral votes.

But don’t expect California, which hasn’t elected a Republican president since 1988, to turn red in 2012. Hill’s new law doesn’t take effect unless enough states sign on—representing at least 270 out of the 538 electoral votes—and dedicate their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner.

So far, eight states and Washington, D.C., have promised their 132 total electors to the cause. NPV backers are hoping enough states jump on the bandwagon in time for 2016.

Where they’re meeting resistance is from people like Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party. Del Beccaro says the plan tries to circumvent, if not outright tamper, with the Constitution.

Interstate agreements are OK, especially for trade, but this particular variety would do away with the Electoral College set up by the Founding Fathers, he says.

“Compacts are allowed under the Constitution, but they’ve never been used to impact another part of the Constitution,” Del Beccaro said.

He also fears what he calls the “balkanization of the United States” whereby candidates would overlook small cities in favor of large urban centers where votes are more densely concentrated.

Those promoting NPV discount both concerns. On a page titled “Answering Myths,” its website states that governors and U.S. senators often win elections without carrying major cities in their states, and the trend would continue in countrywide elections.

Vikram David Amar, associate dean at the UC Davis School of Law, helped start NPV. He says it doesn’t require a Constitutional amendment, because the country’s founding document leaves it up to states how they allocate their electoral votes.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution reads, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors.”

Amar understands how critics could view NPV as a logistical nightmare. State Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale, voted against Hill’s legislation in July. He said in a recent interview that if a national vote is close, every precinct will have people scouring for more votes and contesting ballots at the 11th hour.

“When you can’t determine for months who won an election, that’s a problem,” La Malfa said.

Amar agreed it could be difficult to generate an official, national-vote count, but he said that would be due to different voting rules in each state, such as for felons and 17-year-olds.

He also raised the possibility that a state could back out of the pact because of changing political winds. “If enough states get on board,” Amar said, “then Congress can and should provide some enforcement mechanisms and national uniform votes.”