When it Comes to Presidential Politics, Does California Even Matter?

Short answer: Not much. California has more electoral votes than any other state in the nation. That's right. We're number one. Once you win California's 55 electoral votes, you have one-fifth of the votes you need to work out of the Oval Office.

But really, who cares? Your vote doesn't really count in the Presidential general election. At least that is what those supporting Assembly Bill 459 are saying. AB 459 is a new bill that would ratify an interstate agreement that requires states to award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. AB 459 would, therefore, essentially eviscerate the Electoral College and dramatically change presidential campaigns.

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The interstate compact would be become effective only if states possessing a majority of the total number of electoral votes ratify it. As of last month, seven states and the District of Columbia have ratified the compact. Those jurisdictions account for just shy of 30% of the total electoral votes needed, 270, for the agreement to be ratified.

As it stands, in 48 of 50 states, members of the electorate cast their ballot for their preferred presidential candidate. Then the candidate who obtains the most votes in the states gets all of that state's electoral votes. (In Nebraska and Maine electoral votes are apportioned by congressional district).

While one might think that California would be a sought-after prize, for the last two decades our state has leaned very predictably democratic, at least when it comes to selecting presidential candidates. If California's electoral votes went to a Republican in the near future, it would leave political pundits everywhere gasping for air (and airtime).

A new system could be a welcome change from our current winner-take-all system. Those of you who remember the protracted battle between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 know that a candidate can win the national popular vote and lose the presidency. In addition, as discussed above, candidates ignore California for just about everything but money. Candidates would be forced to come and fight for California and other "safe" states.

This proposal has the advantage of not requiring a constitutional amendment because the idea of electoral votes would remain. Those votes would just be allocated according to a different formula.

There are, of course, also disadvantages to the program. Candidates could ignore rural, sparsely populate areas. Some, including former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, don't like the idea that a state's electoral votes could go to a candidate who the majority of the voters in the state did not support.

Another option would be to follow Maine and Nebraska's lead, handing out electoral votes district by district. Democrats tend not to like this idea because it would mean the state would not lean predictably for the Democratic presidential candidate.

If California is important at all this presidential cycle, it is because the Golden States is seen as a cash cow. Our state is often described as a candidate's ATM. Between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, there are many willing and able donors in our state. For that reason, California wields at least some indirect influence over candidates, as contributors give vast sums for candidates who then use that money in the so-called "swing states."

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user michaelz1. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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The small states are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all method (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.


None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states.

12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes) are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota),, and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.
Despite the fact that these 12 lowest population states together possess 40 electoral votes, because they are not closely divided battleground states, none of these 12 states get visits, advertising or polling or policy considerations by presidential candidates.

In the 13 lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill already has been approved by nine state legislative chambers, including one house in, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont.

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In a 2008 survey, 70% of California residents and likely voters supported this change. Democrats (76%) and independents (74%) were more likely to support a change to direct popular vote than Republicans, but 61 percent of Republicans also supported this change. Among likely voters, support for this change was 6 points higher than in October 2004 (64%).

http://nationalpopularvote.com/pages/polls.php#CA_2008OCT

Most voters don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans consider the idea of the candidate with the most popular votes not being declared a loser detestable. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

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Dividing a state's electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system. What the country needs is a national popular vote to make every person's vote equally important to presidential campaigns.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts.

The district approach would not cause presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates' attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all laws(whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state's 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 "battleground" districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, seven-eighths of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.