Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to Steal an Election

California Republicans have hatched a plan which, if successful, might enable them to hijack the presidential election of 2008.

In mid-July of this year, quietly and without fanfare, one of the state's most powerful Republican lawyers filed a ballot initiative that will, if it passes, divide California's electoral votes, awarding all but two of them to the winner of the popular vote in each Congressional district.

Currently, California's 55 electoral votes (one for each of the 53 Congressional districts; one for each of the two U.S. Senators) go to the winner of the popular vote statewide, as is currently the practice in every other state except Maine and Nebraska. Republicans have long been aware that this state's huge bloc of electoral votes totals more than one-fifth of the 270 necessary for a candidate to be elected.

The attorney who filed the initiative, Thomas Hiltachk, is a legal expert described by Jonathon Alter in a Newsweek article as one "who specializes in ballot referenda that try to fool people in the titles and fine print," has placed the measure on the June, 2008 California primary ballot, which occurs four months after the state's presidential primary (now moved up to February 5), and for which a light turnout is expected.

In his lead "Talk of the Town" column in the August 6 New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg characterized the June 3 California primary as "...a few scattered contests for legislative nominations, but the only statewide items on the ballot will be initiatives," many of which will never make it onto the ballot for lack of signatures, or because of legal language problems, and so forth. But, Hertzberg explains, "Initiative No. 07-0032 -- the Presidential Election Reform Act -- is different. It's serious. Its backers have access to serious money. And it could pass."

The Republican strategy is this: suppose the 2008 presidential race, say, between Clinton and Giuliani, is close in both popular and electoral votes. In 2004, George W. Bush lost California and its 55 electoral votes, but he won the popular vote in 22 of the state's 53 Congressional districts. So "The bottom line" of this so-called Election Reform Act, Hertzberg says, "is that the initiative, if passed, would spot the Republican ticket something in the neighborhood of twenty electoral votes -- votes that it wouldn't get under the rules prevailing in every other sizable state in the Union." And those 20 hijacked votes might just be enough to throw a closely-contested national election into the Republican column.

The initiative is sponsored by Californians for Equal Representation, a false-façade non-organization whose mailing address is the offices of Hiltachk's law firm, which represents the California Republican Party. Hiltachk is also Arnold Schwarzenegger's personal lawyer for election matters, and he has been the motive force behind many well-funded ballot initiatives in the past, including the recall that catapulted Schwarzenegger into the governor's mansion.

Both Hertzberg and Alter point out that the same sort of subterfuge, only from the other side, is occurring in North Carolina, where the Democratic-controlled legislature wants to divide the state's electors in the same manner outlined in Hiltachk's California initiative. However the stakes are much smaller there. North Carolina casts 15 electoral votes altogether, and Alter notes that only three or four electoral votes are at stake.

He adds that "At least in North Carolina it's clearly constitutional. Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the selection of electors is up to state legislatures 'in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,'"
a criterion the California Republicans' "Election Reform Act" doesn't satisfy, thus placing it on shaky legal ground.

Initiative 07-0032, dangerous and destabilizing as it is, has attracted little notice among the voting public so far, although it has drawn the attention of more acute pundits such as Hertzberg and Alter. Most voters tend not to pay much attention to technical issues, especially those tinged with legal complexity, such as the arcane workings of the electoral college. Maybe California's voters will wake up when the t.v. ads start running, and they're alerted to the very real danger this underhanded and misnamed measure poses.

The so-called Election Reform Act would only be fair if every other state changed its rules in the same way, and everyone awarded electoral votes by Congressional district. "If California does what No. 07-0032 calls for while everybody else is still going with winner take all by state," Hendrik Hertzberg observes, "the real-world result will be to give Party B (in this case the Republicans) an unearned, Ohio-size gift of electoral votes."

It's now clear that Karl Rove's "permanent Republican majority" was a fantasy, but as the national election of 2000 clearly showed, the party of Bush and DeLay doesn't necessarily need a majority as long as it is able to grasp the levers of power one way or another. We've seen ample demonstrations in the past of Republicans' willingness to do literally anything to exploit, gain, and hang onto political advantage.

The California Republican party is now clearly planning to steal the presidential election of 2008, and only an informed, aware, and intelligent electorate in the state where this plot is quietly gestating will be able to stop them.

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