The recent bid to end California’s winner-take-all electoral vote system -- a change that will likely boost GOP chances in capturing the White House next year -- is doomed unless a major donor steps forward to underwrite this ballot initiative’s signature-gathering effort.
During two weeks of petitioning before its funds ran out late last September, the group Californians for Equal Representation had collected 115,000 signatures, political consultant Mike Arno told Newsmax.
To qualify for next June’s statewide ballot, this initiative would require 433,971 valid registered voter signatures – a task that would cost millions.
With the electoral map increasingly becoming ossified between “red” and “blue” states, this ballot initiative would stop blue state California from assigning its 55 electoral votes, the nation’s largest, to one candidate.
The winner-take-all system would be replaced with one that awards 53 of the state’s 55 electoral votes individually to whichever presidential candidate gets the most votes in each congressional district.
A Field Poll last August found that what the initiative proposes was supported by 47 percent of Californians and opposed by 35 percent.
The concept is not without precedent. Maine and Nebraska currently allocate their electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote in electoral districts.
“The initiative is a ticking time bomb for Democratic presidential hopes next year, which are pinned on winning all of the state’s 55 electoral votes,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle staff writer John Wildermuth.
Nineteen of California’s 53 congressional seats are held by Republicans in safe GOP districts drawn and gerrymandered by the state’s Democratic-run Legislature.
In 2004 President George Bush won in 22 of California’s 53 congressional districts. Had this Presidential Election Reform Act initiative then been law, Bush would have received 22 California electoral votes. All 55 votes went instead to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, as they did to Democrats in the three previous elections.
California, with a population larger than Canada’s by 5 million, controls more than one-fifth of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect America’s president.
If this initiative reaches the ballot and wins on June 3, then Republican presidential chances of winning in November could become much stronger.
If the 2008 Republican candidate wins 40 percent of California’s electoral vote, the Democratic candidate then would have to win both Florida and Ohio to have any hope of becoming president.
Alarmed Democrats and the media last August launched pre-emptive attacks on this initiative even before its backers were allowed to begin gathering voter signatures.
Californians for Fair Election Reform -- a new organization involving Democratic legislative leaders, the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and wealthy Democratic real estate heir Stephen Bing and hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer -- last August unleashed a reported $40,000 worth of radio ads against the initiative.
A New York Times editorial described the measure as a “sneaky initiative,” an “elaborate dirty trick posing as reform” that “would do serious damage to American democracy.”
Stung by the 2003 voter recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the group’s co-spokesman and Clinton White House veteran Chris Lehane told the San Jose Mercury News that “there’s a danger in waiting too long” to respond to ballot measures.
“Democratic Party activists are trying to defend their turf, their power base,” then-spokesman for Californians for Equal Representation Kevin Eckery told Newsmax last September. “I’ve heard that the other side plans to confront our petition signature gatherers and those who try to sign.”
The California Republican Party’s state convention passed a resolution supporting the initiative, but Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “In principle, I don’t like to change the rules in the middle of the game.”
The initiative’s author, Thomas W. Hiltachk, is Schwarzenegger’s legal counsel.
Hiltachk’s law firm, Democratic critics of the initiative told reporters, has often worked with Republican politicians and was paid approximately $65,000 by one of the biggest funders of the 2004 “Swift Boat” ads that played a large role in defeating Kerry.
By late September this initiative, spurned by California’s Republican governor, had received only one large donation: $175,000 sent by Take Initiative America (TIA). TIA had been formed one day prior to making this donation by small-town Missouri estate lawyer Charles A. Hurth III. When Hiltachk asked Hurth who had given this money, he says he received no answer.
Days later, that source identified himself to the New York Daily News. He is Paul Singer, president of the $7 billion hedge fund Elliot Associates and a member of Republican Rudy Giuliani’s national finance committee. Along with his employees, Singer had contributed $168,400 to Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
Democratic-aligned netroots Web sites immediately “swiftboated” Singer, describing him as the founder of so-called “vulture funds” that buy up discounted bonds issued by poor nations and then use legal means to try to redeem those bonds.
The strident attacks on Singer may have frightened off other would-be contributors to the initiative.
Without enough donations coming in to fund initiative signature-gathering, Hiltachk and Eckery in late September resigned from Californians for Equal Representation.
“How is it that every single person associated with the [Hiltachk initiative] had a link to Rudy Giuliani?” asked Peter Ragone, co-spokesman for Fair Election Reform. Both Hurth and one of Hiltachk’s law partners have also been contributors to the Giuliani campaign.
Fair Election Reform attorney James Harrison filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission in which he called for an investigation of all links between Giuliani and the Republican-supported vote-splitting initiative, charging that these might violate federal election laws against a candidate “coordinating” such expenditures, as well as laws regulating indirect contributions, also known as “soft money.”
Other Democratic spokespeople rushed to the media to argue that the California initiative had been launched to help elect the former New York City mayor.
For his part, Giuliani said he knew nothing of Singer’s financial support for this initiative and that, because he had a 50-50 chance of winning all of California’s 55 electoral votes, he wanted the current winner-take-all system left as it is.
The vote-splitting initiative is dormant but could be reawakened at any moment by the kiss of a white knight with money.
“Democrats,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 2, “say they are pursuing the complaint with the Federal Elections Commission to send a message to any Republicans who might consider reviving the measure.”
Californians for Fair Election Reform is also pursuing other ways to stop the vote-splitting initiative.
It submitted two versions of its own alternative initiative for next June’s ballot. One contains a “poison pill” clause that would nullify what it calls the “Republican power grab” initiative, even if the GOP-aligned measure wins -- if Fair Election Reform’s measure gains even one more popular vote than the Republican-backed measure.
These Fair Election Reform initiatives propose that California join a compact with other states, with all agreeing to give their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most popular votes -- not necessarily in these states, but nationwide.
This compact, already enacted by Maryland and under consideration in a dozen other states, would take effect when it becomes law in enough states to control a winning 270 electoral votes.
Because smaller states will never agree to abolish the Electoral College that now gives them disproportionate power, the aim of this interstate compact is to let as few as 13 of the largest states do an end run around the Constitution.
This compact would bypass the Electoral College and the federalism of our 50 separate state elections for president, and create a de facto direct popular national election of future presidents.
“If this compact had been in effect in 2004, the majority of California voters, who cast ballots for Kerry, would have seen all their 55 electoral votes given to the man who won 3 million more popular votes nationwide, George W. Bush,” Eckery told Newsmax. “It’s fun to see how tongue-tied my liberal friends get in media debate when I ask them to explain how they would ignore and overturn the votes of a majority of Californians.”
If the now-orphaned vote-splitting initiative somehow reaches the ballot and wins in June 2008, Democrats then plan to challenge it in court on grounds that Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution says that electors shall be appointed by states “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” This power, they will argue, resides only in state legislatures, not in any vote of the people.
“We believe this argument is wrong,” Eckery told Newsmax, “and that this constitutional issue was settled when California’s Legislature amended the state Constitution to establish initiative, referendum and recall in 1911, and by subsequent court cases upholding this in the 1930s.”
When California’s Legislature gave power to the people to directly create laws by initiative, this counter-argument goes, it de facto made the voters legislators.
Even if this court case loses on appeal, the whim of a single judge could put the vote-splitting initiative in abeyance until after the November 2008 election.
“We want to make sure this is not the Freddy Krueger of initiatives that comes back to life,” Lehane told reporters.
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