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California voters may finally get on presidential candidates' radar

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that could — if enough other states follow suit — lead to the guaranteed election of the candidate who gets the most popular votes. That would mean a lot more focus on California.

August 11, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), left, talks with state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), center, and Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) on the day the popular-vote measure was approved in July.
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), left, talks with state Sen. President… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

From Sacramento — It's not an earthquake — yet — but California's political landscape is slowly starting to shake.

An independent citizens commission is about to sign off on new, honestly drawn legislative and congressional districts. It marks an end to legislative gerrymandering that protected incumbents and the political status quo.

Next year, we'll also begin using a "top two" open primary system that should significantly reduce the influence of polarizing and paralytic partisan politics.

Both changes were approved by California voters.

And Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that could — if enough other states follow suit — lead to the guaranteed election of the presidential candidate who receives the most votes.

Imagine that! Assured democracy. The popular will prevails.

Electing the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote would make every American voter a meaningful player in the choosing of our nation's leader.

No longer could candidates afford politically to kiss off the likes of California — assumed to be already in the bag for Democrats — or Texas, the biggest presupposed Republican state.

No more all-blues or all-reds. Lots of purple.

Candidates would need to fight for voters wherever they lived — not just in a few privileged and pampered battleground states.

All California voters would have to be respected — not just the relatively few rich campaign bankrollers who feed a gigantic political ATM that spits out multi-millions to be spent stimulating other states' economies.

"California should not be taken for granted in presidential elections," Brown said in signing the bill. "And it seems logical that the occupant of the White House should be the candidate who wins the most votes. That is basic, fair democracy."

Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the measure's author, says the more he looked into it "the more upset I got with the fact that California is irrelevant in presidential elections except for campaign contributions. Two-thirds of the country is irrelevant."

That means presidential contenders aren't pressed on California issues, Hill notes. "Candidates align their priorities with the in-play states: Cuban immigration in Florida, ethanol in Iowa....California has important issues: water, biotech, agriculture other than corn.

"We elect everybody in this country by popular vote except the president."

Under the bill, California joins an interstate compact that obligates each signatory state to cast all its electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.

The compact won't go into effect until it's signed by enough states to comprise a majority of the so-called electoral college vote.

The electoral college isn't even mentioned in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers merely decreed that the president would be chosen by state "electors." And they left it up to the states to decide how those electors would be chosen.

California currently has 55 electoral votes, the biggest block in the nation and 20% of the total needed to elect a president. Yet, the candidates have been ignoring us. That's because all the electoral votes are allotted to the candidate who wins the state's popular vote. And that hasn't been a Republican since 1988. Campaigning here is considered a waste of time and money by both the Democrat and Republican.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed national popular vote bills. He objected to California possibly being forced to award its electoral votes to a candidate the state didn't support. He missed the point.

States shouldn't be electing presidents. Citizens should be.

It's very rare, but four times in history a candidate has captured the popular vote but was denied the presidency because his opponent won out in the electoral college. The latest, of course, was Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Nearly 544,000 more people voted for him than Republican George W. Bush.

That seems to be a GOP hang-up in assessing the national popular vote movement, at least in California. Many consider it some sort of retaliation, which is a bit paranoiac.

The Republican state chairman, Tom Del Beccaro, also has expressed fear that if Democratic presidential contenders were forced to compete in California, they'd make it tougher for GOP candidates to get elected to Congress or the Legislature. Democrats would run TV ads in the L.A. Basin and "harm the chances of any Republicans within range of that media market," he says.

So run Republican TV ads in San Diego and Fresno and damage Democrats.

"Any Republican chairman should be ecstatic about this legislation because it gives him a chance to raise money and be a player," says veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.

It's beyond comprehension why any California Republican would oppose electing the president by popular vote. His vote now is completely wasted.

For months, there was Republican support for the bill in the Legislature. But as the vote neared, there erupted "a firestorm" of GOP grass-roots opposition, says Assembly Republican Caucus Chairman Brian Nestande of Palm Desert. He dropped his co-authorship of the bill and voted against the measure.

"It became a very divisive issue in the party," he says. "To me, it was not worth it....You pick your battles."

The bill passed both houses on a strictly party-line vote.

California is the ninth state to sign the compact, representing 132 electoral votes, 49% of the 270 needed to activate it. The target for implementation is the 2016 election, according to John Koza, a Silicon Valley computer wizard who has led the cause.

"During my lifetime, I've lived in too many states that didn't matter," Koza complains. "That strikes me as a big flaw in the system."

California, at least, is willing to shake the system hard.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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