SACRAMENTO — Seeking to force presidential candidates to pay attention to California's 15.5 million voters, state lawmakers on Tuesday jumped aboard a new effort that would award electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide.
As it is now, California grants its Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state. Practically speaking, that means Democrat-dominated California spends the fall presidential campaign on the sidelines as candidates focus on the states -- mostly in the upper Midwest -- that are truly up for grabs.
Under a bill passed by the Assembly, California would join an interstate compact in which states would agree to cast their electoral votes not for the winner in their jurisdictions but for the winner nationwide. Proponents say that would force candidates to broaden their reach to major population centers such as California.
The bill is part of a 3-month-old movement driven by a Bay Area lawyer and a Stanford computer science professor. The same 888-word bill is pending in four other states and is expected to be introduced in every state by January, its sponsors say. The legislation would not take effect until enough states passed such laws to make up a majority of the Electoral College votes -- a minimum of 13 states, depending on population.
"This is a bill that would allow California to be able to play a role in presidential elections," said Barry Fadem, the Lafayette, Calif., lawyer spearheading the drive. Now, because the state is largely ignored, he said, "A vote in California is not equal to a vote in Ohio, and everyone would concede that."
The bill -- AB 2948 by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Anaheim) -- cleared the Assembly 49 to 31 with a single Republican vote from Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico). To become law, it must be passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Fadem said he was surprised by the partisan divide in the Assembly vote. In the New York Legislature, Republicans introduced the bill, he said, and they support it in Illinois, Missouri and Colorado.
But Republican Assembly members warned that the bill would empower big cities -- whose residents tend to vote for Democrats -- at the expense of small states.
"Small states suffer here," said Assemblyman Michael Villines (R-Clovis). "Yes, California is a big state. But I don't want a candidate to go to 10, 12 big urban centers, win a majority and walk away with the presidency."
"This would simply say if you're in Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Boston ... you can elect the president," Villines said.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) argued that the Electoral College was created by the drafters of the U.S. Constitution after great debate and thought, and he said it should not be altered lightly.
"Direct democracies were properly seen by the founding fathers as very unstable because 50% plus one of the people can vote themselves anything and run roughshod over the rights of the minority, run roughshod over rule of law," DeVore said. "That is what the Electoral College is all about."
The Constitution dictates that presidents are elected by an Electoral College in which every state gets a number of votes equal to the state's congressional districts plus two. The political parties in each state choose a group of delegates equal to the number of the state's electoral votes.
The delegates of the party whose presidential candidate gets the most votes statewide in the November general election then cast their electoral votes, usually by gathering at the state capitol in December. Electoral votes from across the country are sealed and sent to Congress, and the candidate with more than half of the total is declared president.
The Constitution gives states discretion in how they award Electoral College votes and provides for binding contracts among states.
There are 538 electoral votes, and they change among states each decade depending on population shifts. California has 55 electoral votes, the most of any state. Usually the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote also wins the Electoral College vote, but President Bush was elected in 2000 despite winning fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate Al Gore.
After several decades as a reliable Republican presidential vote, California since 1992 has been just as reliably Democratic. Candidates tend to come here for the money, or as an adjunct to visits to more critical states.
The last, ferocious weeks of the presidential campaign are instead spent in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Florida, among a few others.
"You may have noticed in presidential campaigns we are really an ATM machine," Umberg said. "The presidential candidates come to California, they withdraw money, but in terms of the things you and I care about, there's really an absence of debate ... whether it's water policy, trade policy, immigration policy."
Though some Republicans called the Umberg bill a scheme for getting around the arduous job of amending the U.S. Constitution, Fadem said the framework for such a compact is built into the Constitution.
Fadem, who specializes in ballot measures, wrote the 1984 initiative that created California's lottery. He and computer scientist John Koza, who helped invent lottery scratch-off tickets, have written a book making the case for a national popular vote called "Every Vote Equal."
Supporters of their voting plan include former independent presidential candidate John Anderson and former Republican congressman Tom Campbell of Palo Alto.