Republicans are more than a little concerned about next year’s elections, as well they should be. Still, the shoddy attempt by a California GOP operative to game the electoral system to help next year’s GOP presidential nominee needs to be exposed as the flimflam that it is.

Thomas Hiltachk, whose Sacramento law firm specializes in writing “sexy” ballot measures, has written one for the June ballot that would change how California awards its electoral votes. Instead of winner-take-all, California’s 55 votes, by far the most of any state, would be apportioned by congressional district, most likely giving Republicans at least 20 votes.

This would make it easier for the GOP candidate to win the presidency — as George W. Bush did in 2000 — despite losing the popular vote. Had Bush won 20 of California’s votes in 2000 he wouldn’t have needed the Supreme Court to become president.

Hiltachk’s law firm soon will begin rounding up the 434,000 signatures of registered California voters to qualify the measure for the November 2008 ballot.

No chance to pass, you say? Voters are too savvy? But you never know when initiatives are dressed up with phony names. Hiltachk already has been associated with such nifties as “Californians for Paycheck Protection” (anti-union), “Californians for a Fair Business Policy” (pro-tobacco), and Fair Pay Workplace Flexibility (anti-minimum wage).

The name of his new brainchild is about what you would expect: “Californians for Fair Election Reform.”

Put the word “fair” in a Hiltachk initiative, and you know it is not.

He explained his philosophy of initiative-writing to columnist David Broder in the following terms:

“There is no compromise along the way. If you’re the proponent, you write it the way you want to write it and to hell with the opponents or their concerns.”

That’s not quite what Gov. Hiram Johnson and his Teddy Roosevelt progressives had in mind in 1911 when they passed the initiative process to take power away from a Legislature owned by the railroads and other special interests and return it to the people.

Hiltachk’s ploy is naturally eliciting counter-initiatives, meaning the June ballot will be cluttered up again with special interest measures canceling each other out and accomplishing nothing more than financing Sacramento law firms. But before I get to that, a word about what’s wrong with “Californians for Fair Election Reform.”

The so-called “electoral college” is a constitutional monstrosity no more relevant today than the indirect election of senators, which was abolished by the 17th Amendment. The words “electoral college” appear nowhere in the constitution, and were invented to provide an illusion of dignity to a process that in reality was a means of disenfranchising all but white, property-owning, usually WASP males.

In exporting “democracy” to the rest of the world under presidents like Bush, it is conveniently forgotten that Bush is not a democratic leader at all, having lost the popular vote in 2000. Until 2000, such political accidents belonged only to the “olden days,”and we had a good laugh as students learning that presidents like Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison were elected despite losing the popular vote. How can a loser win?

Then came 21st Century Bush, who not only lost the popular vote, but proceeded to govern as though he had won it by excluding the majority from any influence or participation in government. The “genius” of Karl Rove was to convince Bush that he didn’t need either a mandate or a majority to govern.

It was a brutal reminder that the “electoral college” was not something that could be conveniently forgotten. It was alive and well and a major embarrassment. Trouble was, since it enhanced power in the small states, amending the constitution to eliminate it — which would take a two-thirds vote of Congress and three-fourths of the states — was unlikely.

So we have this dilemma: the “electoral college” is undemocratic, serving neither a majority of the states nor a majority of the people. Yet we’re stuck with it because in 1789 when communication and transportation were primitive and the average voter knew little of nominees or platforms, indirect elections seemed the only workable way to elect either a president or a senator.

The constitution states: “Each State shall appoint, in such a Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” That means that, short of a constitutional amendment, the only way to rid ourselves of the “electoral college” is state by state.

Which brings me to two California initiatives being prepared to oppose the GOP initiative in June: One, called the national popular vote, would give all 538 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It would take effect only when ratified by states representing a majority (270) of electoral votes.

The second initiative, more plausible, I think, would allocate electoral votes proportionally (as Hiltachk’s proposal would do), but only when a majority of states has done the same. So far, only Nebraska and Maine, with a total of nine electoral votes, have adopted such systems.

If a majority of states adopted a proportional or district electoral vote system so that Democrats could win 40 percent in the Deep South while Republicans took their 40 percent of California, the system would be fair.

If only California does it, as I’m sure Hiltachk is fully aware, there’s nothing fair about it.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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