Politics & Government

Feinstein pushes vote change

SACRAMENTO -- A proposed ballot initiative being circulated to change how California awards its presidential electoral votes is so irksome to Sen. Dianne Feinstein that she is vowing to change the U.S. Constitution.

Democrats say the so-called Presidential Electoral Reform Act -- which would throw out the Golden State's winner-take-all system -- is nothing but a ruse to win the Republicans the White House by assuring them at least 20 of California's 55 electoral votes.

"I think this effort to essentially skew the presidential system would directly change the election," Feinstein said in an interview.

So California's senior senator said she is now determined to at last abolish the Electoral College and guarantee a direct popular vote of the president.

She is attempting to pull off what wasn't dared after 2000 -- when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the White House to George Bush -- or seriously pursued after 2004 -- when Bush won the vote but nearly lost the Electoral College, and the election, to John Kerry.

"I think people are now beginning to see that the Electoral College is a remnant of days gone by," said Feinstein, who announced Aug. 24 that she would introduce a resolution in the Senate to eliminate the presidential selection system created by the founding fathers.

Feinstein's effort comes as activists nationally are seeking other means to change America's presidential selection process.

Two California residents -- Lafayette attorney Barry Fadem and computer scientist and visiting Stanford professor John Koza -- are spearheading efforts to persuade states to assign their Electoral College votes to whoever wins the popular vote nationally.

Meanwhile, GOP lawyer Thomas Hiltachk, who helped initiate the 2003 gubernatorial recall and worked until this spring for Gov. Schwarzenegger, is drawing Feinstein's ire.

Hiltachk's Electoral Reform Act Initiative -- being circulated for signatures for the June 2008 ballot -- would award just two of California's electoral votes to the state winner in the November presidential election. The other 53 electoral votes would be assigned based on which candidate won in each of the state's 53 congressional districts.

The competing popular-vote and congressional-district plans are inspiring arguments over whether backers seek true political reform or merely want to determine the outcome of presidential races in 2008 and beyond.

Meanwhile, Feinstein's bid to eliminate the Electoral College is politically daunting at best. It would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives -- plus ratification by three-fourths of legislatures in the 50 states.

"This is the way we've been doing presidential elections for over 200 years, and I just don't see it changing," said Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican analyst and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book on state political districts. "It's difficult to make a change that requires independent action by each of the state legislatures.

"There's always one that will be the spoiler. And there's no incentive for the smaller states" to repeal the Electoral College, he said.

But National Popular Vote -- the organization headed by the two California activists -- won a victory this spring toward simply bypassing the Electoral College to elect a president.

On April 10, Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, signed a popular-vote law to award its electoral votes to the national-vote winner.

The Maryland program won't go into effect unless a sufficient number of other states also sign on. If states totaling 270 electoral votes -- the number needed to win a presidential election -- assign their electoral votes to the popular-vote winner, the Electoral College becomes irrelevant.

Last year, an earlier bill to assign California's electoral college voters to the popular-vote winner was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Schwarzenegger. He called the plan "counter to the tradition of our great nation, which honors state rights."