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The Electoral College, after all, determines the winner of the White House, and while tied to the popular vote, it has made popular vote losers into presidential winners four times: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. Bush, in his 2004 bid for reelection, narrowly escaped falling victim to the same system by which he benefited four years earlier. A mere 180,000 votes in Ohio clinched the state, and thus the election, for the current President.
The Electoral College, as established by Article II of the U.S. Constitution, awards Electoral Votes to states on the basis of their combined number of Senators and Representatives. While every state has two Senators, House delegations are reapportioned every ten years consistent with the census. State legislatures are empowered to determine the manner by which Electoral Votes are awarded. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, Electoral Votes are extended in winner-take-all fashion. A candidate need only secure a plurality of a state vote to secure all of its Electoral Votes.
Through this process, a close popular vote can yield a blowout in the Electoral College if the winner of the former secures narrow margins in states with hefty Electoral Vote totals. It also enables a mismatch between popular and Electoral votes if a candidate wins battleground states narrowly while faring poorly in enemy territory.
Two states use another mechanism to allocate Electoral Votes, Maine and Nebraska. These states award the winner of the state's popular vote two Electoral Votes. Then, the winner of a congressional district is awarded a single Electoral Vote for each district secured in the state. Maine and Nebraska are small and politically safe (blue and red, respectively), so both tend to send a uniform delegation for the Democratic and Republican candidate.
Enter California. State GOP strategists are backing an initiative, the Presidential Election Reform Act, to appear on the June 2008 ballot to implement a system identical to Maine and Nebraska. The impact could be profound. For example, in 2004, John Kerry defeated President Bush by 10% in the statewide vote, yet the Massachusetts Senator lost 22 of the state's 53 congressional districts to the incumbent. Kerry walked away with all of the state's 55 Electoral Votes, but would have secured 33 to Bush's 22 under a district system.
This is cause for concern in the Democratic Party. Most assume that Ohio will shift from red to blue in the coming election, a transfer of 20 Electoral Votes. Assuming the rest of the electoral map stays the same, the Democratic winner would soon be measuring the dimensions of the Oval Office. California holds the potential trump card, however, potentially neutralizing the loss of Ohio or Florida through a recipient allocation of Electoral Votes previously reserved for the Democratic candidate.
California Democrats have countered with a punch of their own. They seek to become the second state to pass legislation to join the Campaign for the National Popular Vote. The statute allocates a given state's Electoral Votes on the basis of the winner of the national popular vote, meaning that George W. Bush, and not John Kerry, would have won all of California's 55 Electoral Votes in 2004. To date, Maryland is the only state with such a law on the books. Twelve others have passed laws in at least one of the two legislative houses. An additional thirty states have introduced similar legislation. These laws would be triggered when a combined 270 Electoral Votes, a majority in the Electoral College, are allocated by a requisite number of states.
Both reforms reek of political maneuvering and arguably do little to restore the small-d in democracy. The move to allocate Electoral Votes by congressional district comes closer to this end, but would not be realized until adopted universally. In an isolated situation like California, it does little more than rig an election in one party's favor. The Campaign for a National Popular Vote seems like a round-about way to undermine the Constitution. The document makes alterations to its fabric possible through an amendment process. This organization and its adherents would enjoy more legitimacy if they worked through these established channels.
Both measures could appear on the June 2008 California primary ballot. At stake: The resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue circa 2009.