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Dear Californians, You Don't Matter

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Well, at least when it comes to picking the next leader of the free world. In a previous post, I queried, "When it Comes to Presidential Politics, Does California Even Matter?" Democrats count on (take for granted) the Golden State and its 55 electoral votes--one-fifth of the total votes needed to win the presidency. Candidates visit our state to raise money, but not much else. Presidential campaigns are won and lost in the battle ground states. California is decidedly not such a state.

This week brought two presidential season events: first, the Iowa Straw polls, and second, California voted to in favor of the National Popular Vote plan.

For more than two centuries Americans have used the Electoral College to pick presidents. However, there is now (yet another) move afoot to change that. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation supporting an interstate compact which would implement a new system whereby each state would award its electoral votes to the candidate winning the national popular vote. The new system would therefore mean that the candidate winning the most votes nationwide would be guaranteed to win the presidency.

Problem or smart policy?

Short answer: It depends. The new system would eviscerate the way presidential campaigns are currently waged, and move campaigns away from the swing states. Candidates would have to pay attention to voters in each state, and therefore would be held to answer based on issues facing all of the states. The winning candidate would also be the one with the most individual votes, a scenario that is not assured under the Electoral College. In fact four Presidents - the winners of the 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 elections - did not win the national popular vote.

On the other hand, the Electoral College does keep candidates' attention on small states and rural areas. In addition, under this system, California's 55 electoral votes could be awarded to a candidate who the majority of Californians do not support. That makes some more than a bit squeamish. This was Governor Schwarzenegger's main complaint about moving to a national popular vote.

The bill will not take effect unless states constituting a majority of the nation's electoral votes endorse the plan. In such a case, it would not matter what the other states do, the winner of the national popular vote would have enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Therefore, California's pledge of its 55 electoral votes has given the reform effort quite a bit of momentum. Proponents are about halfway there. Eight other states - including Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois - and the District of Columbia have endorsed the compact.

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

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