Californians for
Electoral Reform
PO Box 128, Sacramento, CA 95812
916 455-8021

Home   |   About CfER   |   Join / renew   |   Calendar   |   Search

Voice for Democracy

Newsletter of Californians for Electoral Reform

Fall 2006

The Electoral College: A New Approach to an Old Problem

Editor’s note: On September 30, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 2948, which would have made California the first state to approve an interstate compact that would insure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes President. CfER supported this bill. Its sponsor, Assembly Member Tom Umberg (D-69), said, “To paraphrase the Governor, ‘We’ll be back’, and will take the issue to the people by initiative if necessary.”

California, the most populous state in the nation, has an economy ranked sixth in the world.  We dominate in high technology, biotech and agriculture, and are at the forefront of both culture and academic life.  But when it comes to presidential politics, California is decidedly a second-class state.  Despite having 55 electoral votes, it plays no meaningful role in electing the President. Campaigns don't poll here, candidates don't campaign here, and our voters and the issues that matter to them are all but ignored as part of the presidential election process.

While both Democratic and Republican candidates are quick to use California as a convenient ATM to replenish their campaign coffers, they know that California is not a battleground state. Democrats can safely take California’s block of electoral votes for granted, and therefore choose not to advertise or campaign here.  Republicans do not believe they have a chance of winning in California, and therefore consider any time or resources spent campaigning here to be wasted.

We're not alone in suffering the disenfranchising effects of the obsolete Electoral College system.  It squelches democracy in large and small states alike.  It has reduced our presidential election system to one in which the majority of our citizens are spectators rather than participants, and have almost no role to play in selecting our nation's leader.

Many people are under the false impression that small states benefit from the Electoral College.  While they do get more electoral votes per capita than large states (because all states are guaranteed at least two Senators and one Representative in the House), that subsidy is not enough to make candidates care about them.  In fact, except for New Hampshire, a battleground state, small states were among the biggest losers in terms of candidate attention in 2004.

The effects of the Electoral College on our democracy are alarming. Eleven states (Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, and Florida) accounted for 92% of all candidate visits and 96% of all TV expenditures in 2004. But the 25 states getting the least attention received just three visits from all candidates combined and under $400,000 in campaign advertising -- negligible for a presidential campaign.

Twenty-three states did not see a single TV ad from the presidential campaigns, and 28 states went without a single visit from one of the four major candidates during the peak campaign period.  In presidential political campaigns, that's the equivalent of an obscene hand gesture.

The only positive thing to be said about the Electoral College is that it is fair in how it metes out its unfairness.  In the same way that W.C. Fields said, "I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally", the Electoral College is bipartisan in how it ignores both Republicans and Democrats across the county.  Except, of course, if they live in a swing state.

The effects on voters of being shut out of the process are equally worrisome. Voter turnout was dramatically lower in states that were not contested versus states that were in play, with battleground states having at least 7% higher turnout among all voters and 17% higher turnout for voters under 30. And who doubts that the policies that the winner will ultimately advance upon taking office will tend to favor those states where all of the campaign promises were made. 

But there is reason to hope that we can finally adopt a rational and democratic model for electing our president.  A coalition called National Popular Vote has an innovative approach to this age-old problem. By recognizing that the Constitution already gives states the right to choose how to cast their Electoral College votes, this new approach simply has these states cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote.  Once states with a majority in the Electoral College choose to use this new model, the winner of the national popular vote is guaranteed to win the election. 

Obviously, no state wants to make such a change on its own, but the National Popular Vote plan wouldn’t take effect until enough states have agreed to use it that it will be decisive, because they comprise a majority of the Electoral College.  It does this by having states join an interstate compact, a constitutionally protected way for states to work together. With legislation having been recently introduced in six states, including California, this new plan both makes sense and is building momentum. And it's about time.

Rob Dickinson, Executive Vice President

To join CfER, or renew your membership, please visit

Return to Summaries