Rarely has a political party made as blatant an attempt to skew the electoral system for its own benefit as some prominent California Republicans did this summer and early fall.
And rarely has any ballot measure had as little chance to succeed as the plan Republicans floated. Also, rarely has a political ploy had as much potential to backfire on a party in the long run as what the GOP tried to foist on California.
Here’s how the GOP wanted to change presidential voting in this state (and some elements are still trying, with little hope of getting anywhere): Rather than giving all California electoral votes to the candidate getting the most votes statewide in any presidential election, the Republican measure would have staged 53 mini-elections, one in every congressional district. Two more electoral votes were to go to the statewide winner.
The party – which refused repeatedly to reveal who financed this effort – hoped to keep California from going completely into the Democratic column next year, as it has in the last election cycle. Before then, of course, the state went Republican in all but one election since 1948.
Republican activists noted that the inland areas of California, along with Orange and San Diego Counties, go Republican in almost all elections. Meanwhile, heavily populated coastal counties like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, and Santa Clara invariably go heavily Democratic. They have in recent years outvoted Republican areas and made California Democratic.
Justice, the Republicans said, would come by allowing those voting differences to be reflected in the Electoral College. Why shouldn’t the Republican candidate get about 22 additional California electoral votes, they argued, which this system would provide if things go next year as they have in the past few elections, since that’s obviously what the voters in Republican-dominated districts prefer? Those 22 votes would be like awarding the GOP an extra Ohio every four years and taking one away from the Democrats.
California would not have been the first with such a system, they noted. Maine and Nebraska already divide their votes.
But lumping California with states that have a tiny fraction of this state’s massive electoral clout is also unjust. If Californians could rely on big Republican-dominated states like Texas and Florida, which contain many strongly Democratic areas, to adopt a similar system, then a switch might be fair and just. But when Republicans weren’t willing even to consider that, it quickly became clear their effort had no chance.
“This is nothing more than an unfair political power grab,” complained Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Presidential candidates from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Dennis Kucinich all echoed her sentiment before the GOP gave up.
Added longtime Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, “This is all about rigging the system, fixing the system to tilt the Electoral College to the Republicans under the pretense of being a reform.”
It didn’t help the GOP much when Tony Andrade, the official proponent of one version of the Republican measure, observed that, “When we study the beginning of our country, small states were tough on bigger ones like New York or Massachusetts. They demanded that each state get at least three electors so that they would have a voice in selecting the President. But urban centers are now in control of the selection process.”
Texas demonstrates clearly how wrong that claim is. Its big cities like Houston and San Antonio generally go Democratic, but the state has not gone Democratic in a presidential vote in more than a generation.
Andrade may be correct in saying that a system assigning presidential electors by congressional district would bring candidates into more rural and outlying areas that now have little role in campaigns.
But it made no sense for California to do this unless every other state does it, too. When internal polls began to show the majority of Californians of all stripes agreeing, it was time for the GOP to fold its cards. They did, with Sacramento-based fund-raiser Marty Wilson and lawyer Thomas Hiltachk leaving the initiative committee. That left Andrade and few others persisting in the effort, with virtually no money to pay petition circulators. Their task was made even harder when a close supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani disclosed he was the source of virtually all money spent pushing this measure.
Of course, there’s another rub, too. California is a Johnny-come-lately Democratic state. Its mostly Republican areas like the Central Valley and the Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino are growing faster than coastal areas.
So there’s a decent chance California will become a swing state in the foreseeable future, and maybe even a GOP state once again. Which means that in the long run, Republicans might be shooting themselves in the foot if they revive their attempt to change the electoral system. After what happened with their strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 1990s, which drove millions of new Latino citizens into the Democratic column, this state’s Republicans should know all about shooting themselves in the foot.