In a previous incarnation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a self-described reformer and champion of direct democracy. That worked fine for him one year, but was a disaster the next. Now he gets another crack at shaking things up.
This one is a freebie. No speeches, no signature-collecting, no fundraising required. Just a ballpoint pen.
Among the 500-plus bills sitting on the governor’s desk is one that would thrust him to the forefront of a budding national movement to extend direct democracy to presidential elections.
He has 10 days to sign or veto the bill by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Anaheim) that would mark the first step in rendering moot the anachronistic Electoral College. The goal is to assure that the candidate most Americans vote for is elected president.
No more battleground states or spectator states. Every state would be in play. Every vote would count.
Schwarzenegger’s signature on the Umberg bill would make California the first state to ratify an interstate compact obligating each signatory to cast all its electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.
The compact wouldn’t go into effect until enough states ratified it to make up a majority of the Electoral College vote. Depending on the states’ sizes, that could be anywhere from 11 to 39, but probably would be around 25, according to the numbers nerd who came up with this proposed system, Stanford genetic programming professor John Koza. He also invented the scratch-off lottery ticket.
“I’m a political junkie who got interested in how the Electoral College distorts the presidential election process,” Koza says.
His interest perked up in the 2004 campaign, which looked for a while like it could be a repeat of the 2000 race when one candidate (Al Gore) won the popular vote but lost to his opponent (George W. Bush) in the decisive Electoral College. That didn’t recur. There still are only four presidential elections in history -- out of 55 -- when the winner of the popular vote didn’t wind up president.
I’d say that’s four too many, but there’s something else that’s aggravating: Candidates focus virtually all their time and money on a few battleground states while ignoring most states -- like California -- that are taken for granted as safely Democrat or Republican.
There’s nothing to compete for in a safe state. The entire bloc of electoral votes is already sewed up. That’s because each state’s electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, except in Maine and Nebraska, where they’re parceled out by congressional district.
With a popular vote system, however, every vote would count. A candidate would need to stump in nearly every state.
Under the current system, California issues -- water, immigration, offshore drilling -- don’t get debated because the candidates never show up here, except to bum money off rich people. But in Iowa, there’s a full discussion of corn and ethanol. Then after the election, there’s less White House attention to California and other sidelined states.
“If you’re in Ohio and sneeze,” Umberg says, “you immediately get $100,000 in cold medicine. If you’re in California and the levees need repair, good luck.”
This isn’t about big vs. small states. “Voters in two-thirds of the states are effectively disenfranchised in presidential elections,” Koza writes in a book with his National Popular Vote co-promoter, elections lawyer Barry Fadem of Lafayette, Calif.
They list six of the 10 most populous states as campaign spectators -- California, Texas, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina -- but also 12 of the 13 smallest (all except New Hampshire).
“From the perspective of presidential candidates,” the authors write, “a vote in Wyoming is equal to a vote in California -- both are equally worthless.”
There’s nothing sacrosanct in the Constitution about the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system. The founding fathers allocated presidential “electors” to each state based on the number of its U.S. House members, plus senators. But each legislature was given sole authority to choose a method for casting the electoral votes.
The winner-take-all system evolved as states jockeyed for federal clout leading up to the Civil War.
These days, as we communicate in cyberspace and work in a global economy, electing a president by state seems not only dated, but detrimental.
“Every first-grader knows that when you elect a class leader, whoever gets the most votes wins,” Umberg says. “But we have this bizarre system for electing a president.”
Practically every Democratic legislator voted for the bill. Almost every Republican didn’t, many asserting it would benefit big cities.
“Every candidate would be camped in L.A. and New York City, and they’d forget about the rest of the country,” contends Senate GOP Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine. “I think it’s crazy.”
But at least they’d be in L.A. And they’re forgetting about most of the country now.
The only Republican who voted for the measure was Assemblyman Rick Keene of Chico.
“They’re just being knee-jerk,” Keene says of his GOP colleagues. “They’re not thinking it through. They argue that the founders wanted to make sure candidates campaign in rural areas. But they’re not campaigning in Northern California.”
There are legislators, including Republicans, lined up to introduce similar bills in 21 other states next year, Umberg says.
Pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California found in 2004 that 64% of voters supported junking the Electoral College and changing to a popular vote.
“It doesn’t matter which side they’re on,” he says, “people want to feel their vote counts.”
The governor hasn’t had time to think about the bill yet, a spokesman says.
Schwarzenegger can side with Republican legislators. Or he can follow what would seem to be his natural instinct -- to leap out in front of a national reform that expands direct democracy.
And nobody could question his political motives because, being foreign-born, this is one governor who can never run for president.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com.