California lawmakers split along party lines in battle over electoral votes ballot

As a petition to change the way California awards its electoral votes makes its way into the public this week, members of the state’s congressional delegation are locking arms along party lines in preparation for a multimillion-dollar battle that could, in effect, change the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.

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Democrats are united in adamantly denouncing an effort to award the state’s electoral votes by congressional district as a GOP-led power play. Some Republicans, meanwhile, say the proposal is fairer than the current winner-take-all system and could reap benefits for their state in the presidential process.

“We’ll all be part of an effort to fight it,” Rep. Henry Waxman said of his fellow California Democrats. “We’ve been successful in beating back efforts in the past.”

Indeed, the effort is the latest controversial ballot initiative to make its way into the Golden State’s political sphere.

In recent years, members of Congress successfully fought off a plan led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to turn over redistricting to a panel of retired judges.

That effort drew little support from GOPers and was opposed by Democrats, and members of both parties raised money against it. This time, members are breaking down by party line and are hesitant to commit much more than advocacy at this point.

Estimates indicate the initiative would cost at least a million dollars to gather the necessary 400,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, and possibly tens of millions on each side to conduct the campaign.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said members are unwilling to commit resources because the initiative doesn’t directly affect them, unlike redistricting and term-limits initiatives.

“We barely mention them until they qualify,” Issa said. “Usually they’re just talked about to get us to spend money. ”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the state’s Democratic delegation, estimated that all California Democrats in Congress “are going to oppose it.”

She emphasized that the campaign is a long way away but said Democrats are taking the effort very seriously and plan to let their constituents know about its true intent: helping Republicans elect the next president.

The effort would change California’s winner-take-all method of awarding electoral-college votes to a system like one that just two states, Maine and Nebraska, currently employ. The statewide winner in California would get two electoral votes, and the other 53 would be awarded according to the winner of each congressional district.

California is a reliably Democratic state, and thus the change would likely swing a significant number of votes into the Republican presidential nominee’s column. In 2004, President Bush won 22 districts in the state. California holds about 10 percent of the country’s electoral votes.

A similar, Democratic-led proposal in North Carolina was squashed by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean last month, after the California proposal surfaced.

Waxman said the substance of the proposal might well be fair, but implementing it starting with the largest state betrays its true purpose.

“This is a Republican plot to steal electoral votes that might make it impossible for a Democrat to win in 2008,” Waxman said.

Issa said the proposed method would make California consequential and pointed out that the state’s presidential primaries are already decided using a similar method. Overall, he said, the method is fairer.

“What if Florida had only been controversial in a few districts in 2004?” Issa argued, noting that a few isolated problems cast all the state’s electoral votes into doubt.

Issa and Republican supporters dismiss the notion that the effort is a partisan ploy, but the people behind the effort have significant ties to Republicans.

It was revealed last week that the law firm of Charles Bell and Thomas Hiltachk collected about $65,000 in fees in 2006 from a group funded almost completely by wealthy GOP activist Bob Perry. Perry spent millions on the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Hiltachk has also worked for Schwarzenegger, and the firm represents the state Republican Party.

So far, the Democratic-led effort to fight the initiative has been much more vocal and organized and has drawn more big-name support than the GOP-led effort to support it.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and several of the top Democratic officeholders in the state are advising the opposition group, called Californians for Fair Election Reform, which launched its first radio ads last week.
Schwarzenegger and other Republicans have yet to commit, and the governor has expressed skepticism.

Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the opposition, said the state Democratic Party is beginning to reach out to members of Congress. Its chairman has sent them all a letter, and its political director will be in Washington next week to brief them.
Two well-known Democratic donors, Tom Steyer and Steve Bing, are financially backing the opposition effort. It’s still unclear where the funding for the pro-initiative campaign will come from.

A spokesman for Perry, Anthony Holm, said Perry hasn’t been approached about funding the initiative and “it is incredibly unlikely” that he would.

Calls to Bell and Hiltachk’s law firm were not returned.

According to a Field Poll conducted last month, 47 percent of Californians supported the initiative and 35 percent opposed it. Another poll touted by the opposition group had those numbers at 38 and 28, respectively.

But Democrats warn that backers are smartly aiming to get the proposition on the June state primary ballot, which is separate from the February presidential primary and should have very low turnout.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said the initiative faces a “tough sell,” noting the ardent resistance from the Democratic establishment.

“Normally, unless it’s over 50 at the very beginning, it’s going to be hard to get it passed,” Lungren said.