An Electoral College Challenge in California

If a group of California citizens get their way, massive change will envelop the national presidential election process.

Yesterday, this group of individuals launched the “Make Our Vote Count” campaign by filing a Request for Title and Summary with the California attorney general’s office, attempting to begin the process of qualifying a voter initiative that, if adopted, would cause the state’s 55 Electoral College votes to be awarded on a proportional basis. According to the filing language, the new system would distribute electoral votes to the individual presidential candidates consistent with their statewide vote percentage earned, rounded to the nearest whole number.

From time to time, talk arises about states splitting their Electoral College votes, either as a way to gain partisan advantage or simply to make themselves more important in the general election.

Currently, two entities split their votes: Maine and Nebraska. Both do so in the same manner. The candidate who wins the statewide vote receives two electoral votes. One more is awarded for each congressional district carried. Maine has two CD’s; Nebraska, three. Because the two places are small and homogenous, breaking their unity pattern almost never happens. In fact, it was only in 2008 when we saw a split occur, as then-candidate Barack Obama took one Nebraska electoral vote with his win in the Omaha-anchored 2nd Congressional District.

Should enough signatures be obtained to place this initiative on the California ballot, both proponents and opponents would likely run major campaigns. Adopting such language would obviously help Republicans because their presidential nominee would earn electoral votes despite not being competitive.

The change would have such a drastic national effect that despite losing the state, a candidate would score more electoral votes here than in most places. For example, though 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney only received 37.1 percent of the California vote, the new formula would have awarded him 20 electoral votes, more than he earned in any state but Texas.

Staying with our 2012 example, the change would have then resulted in a net swing of 40 votes toward Romney. As you many remember, the final Electoral College count was 332-206 in the president’s favor. Without converting the vote of even one individual, the adjusted count would have yielded a 312-226 final split, meaning that flipping Florida (29 electoral votes), a state where the candidates were separated by less than one percentage point, and either Ohio (18 votes) or Michigan (16 votes) would have changed Obama’s electoral vote landslide into a Romney victory.

Obviously, the Democratic campaign strategy will define the California ballot initiative in a partisan context, because they overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans. The proponents will concentrate on demonstrating how subjecting the presidential candidates to fight for California votes would force them to address the state’s issues, thus making the largest state in the Union a player in presidential general election politics for the first time in decades. Since 1988, Democrats have taken the state for granted and Republicans concede the result. The latter course because it is too expensive to invest huge campaign dollars here with only faint hopes of actually scoring a long-shot upset.

Chances are this ballot initiative will fail even if it does qualify, but a reasoned, spirited campaign could lay the groundwork for an eventual change.

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