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California split

Republicans are cynically trying to undercut the state's electoral clout in the presidential race.

August 25, 2007

An earlier primary may finally give California its proper clout in presidential elections. It would be foolish to undermine that power by forcing the state to do something in the general election that only two other states do: split the electoral vote among congressional districts.

Yet that's exactly what some Republican lawyers and consultants are trying to do, and no wonder. They recognize that California, a strongly Democratic state with more than 10% of the nation's electoral votes, can elect or defeat a president. If California's 55 electoral votes go to the Democratic Party's nominee -- and the smart money is betting they will -- the GOP's candidate will have a much harder time.

Republicans, trying to keep their grip on the White House, want to scrap the winner-take-all system used in 47 other states and instead allow their nominee to pick off California's rural districts. The state would find itself in the company of only Maine and Nebraska, with a paltry nine electoral votes between them and none of California's make-or-break potential. The GOP strategists argue that the current system disenfranchises Californians in the deserts, foothills and other outlying areas.

But that's a reason to dump the electoral college altogether, not a justification for chopping up California while cynically leaving winner-take-all intact in majority Republican states.

It's odd, to say the least, for such a sweeping alteration of California's voting power to come up in the middle of a presidential campaign. The primary is Feb. 5, the general election is the following Nov. 4, yet the ballot measure changing the rules of the game would reach voters right in the middle, on June 3. Even Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger questioned the timing. GOP candidates must have discovered that they aren't making any headway here. But the responsible course is to reconsider their message, not to look for ways to blunt the state's voting power.

Democrats, in response, are dusting off a proposal to circumvent the electoral college by committing all of California's electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote -- but only if states representing a majority of electoral votes do likewise and thus render the electoral college moot. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is going a step further, calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college.

Either move would be smarter and more equitable. Republicans should support one or the other, and drop their current ploy, if they truly want to put presidential elections in the hands of voters once and for all.

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