Democratic leaders in California have pledged to spend millions of dollars to defeat an initiative proposed by a Republican lawyer to divide California's electoral votes by congressional district.
If Thomas Hiltachk can gather enough signatures, the measure will be on the ballot next June.
Democrats may have their work cut out for them. A Field poll indicated 47 percent of voters in the Golden State favored it, with 35 percent opposed.
Democratic angst is understandable. With 55 electoral votes, California is by far the biggest electoral prize. And it's a prize which has been safely in Democratic hands. In the last four presidential elections, Democrats have won by landslides.
But within California there are 20 congressional districts that reliably vote Republican an electoral bloc the size of Ohio. If it were taken away from the Democrats and given to the GOP, its difficult to see how the Democrats can win the presidency in 2008.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Cal., described the initiative as "a partisan power grab by Republican operatives in the Karl Rove tradition."
Democrats felt differently in 2004 when voters in Colorado a purplish state that leans Republican were voting on a similar initiative. (It failed, 35 percent to 65 percent.)
Obviously, partisan attitudes about altering the way electoral college votes are cast are shaped by whose ox will be gored. But from the standpoint of civics, is it a good idea to have electoral votes cast by congressional district?
The Constitution sets the number of electors for each state at the number of its Representatives and Senators, and authorizes state legislatures to appoint the electors. Nothing in the Constitution requires that the electors vote for the candidate who got the most popular votes in their state, though this has been the tradition, and is required by state law in some states.
Two small states Maine in 1972 and Nebraska in 1996 have departed from this tradition, and voted to cast their electoral votes by congressional district, with the statewide winner receiving the two votes for the senators. But ever since the change has been adopted, the presidential candidate who carried the state also carried every congressional district within the state, so no state has yet divided its electoral vote.
The primary argument for continuing to cast electoral votes by state is that without this practice, presidential candidates would pay even less attention to small states such as Wyoming or Delaware than they do at present.
Big states that are closely divided, such as Florida or Ohio, also would lose clout because their electoral votes likely would be closely divided. The winner may gain only three or four electoral votes more than the loser.
The primary argument for casting electoral votes by congressional district is that it would make it less likely the winner of the popular vote could lose in the electoral college. But this has happened only twice since the Civil War, and if this system had been in place in 2000, President Bush still would have been elected, because he carried more congressional districts than did Al Gore, even though he came up half a million votes short in the popular vote.
A more persuasive argument to me is that if electoral votes were cast by congressional district, it would be easier to conduct recounts and to investigate allegations of fraud. President Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by just 537 votes out of nearly six million cast. But in only a handful of the state's then 23 congressional districts was the margin close enough to warrant a recount.
If electoral votes were cast by congressional district, presidential candidates would spend more time in big states they now avoid. Candidates raise money in New York and California and Texas, but as election day nears, you're more likely to find them in Florida or Ohio.
California Republican strategist Peter Hannaford opposes Mr. Hiltachk's initiative, partly because he thinks the GOP is giving up on the Golden State, mostly because he thinks any change would spur efforts to dump the Electoral College altogether, which both he and I think would be disastrous. (If you want to get an idea of how stupid it would be, imagine a national recount in 2000.)
But I think there are, on balance, substantial advantages to casting electoral votes by congressional district. But it's not a step that should be taken sequentially, because of the short term partisan harm it can do. If California changes, so must Texas.
Do you think it's possible Republicans and Democrats will stop angling for partisan advantage long enough to make a change that's in the national interest? I don't, either.