California Gov. Jerry Brown believes that "the occupant of the White House should be the candidate who wins the most votes." On Monday, he signed a bill that could hand the state's 55 electoral votes not to the candidate who wins California, but to the candidate who wins the most votes nationally.
If states representing a majority of electoral votes -- the magic number is 270 -- pass similar legislation, the California bill will activate. To date, eight states and the District of Columbia -- representing 132 electoral votes -- have passed laws to join an interstate popular-vote compact. (The beauty of the interstate compact, proponents argue, is that it does not require a hard-to-muster amendment to the Constitution, as the compact still allows states to choose how their electors vote.)
I understand the appeal. Many Democrats still are smarting from 2000, when Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote after an agonizing Florida recount battle, even though Democrat Al Gore won a plurality of the popular vote.
Brown and bill author Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, argue that it is a matter of simple fairness that the biggest popular vote-getter win. They add that a national popular vote would draw presidential hopefuls away from battleground states and into California. Of course, that means that nominees would be likelier to play to their respective parties' bases, to gin up turnout among the faithful, and less likely to try to woo independent voters.
Hill also boasts that an NPV would guarantee that "each vote in California is counted." Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, agrees. A GOP presidential candidate has not won the state since 1988. Democrats know that their votes won't boost their party's count in California's winner-take-all electoral contest. And Republicans know that their votes won't count at all.
My issue is that this system would open the door for two kinds of mischief.
One: Think Florida times 10. As political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. wrote in City Journal, "if the national popular vote decided the presidency, the losing side in a tight race would challenge election results everywhere it could, even in states where the margin was large. If you like Florida in 2000, you'll love the National Popular Vote."
Chuck Bell, election attorney to GOP stars, sees an NPV as "electoral dynamite" -- with recounts, challenges and court rulings in those states stirring up "national chaos, worse than Bush vs. Gore."
Stern acknowledges that the Florida ad nauseam argument is "legitimate."
Two: What happens if enough states pass NPV compacts in time for the 2012 election and Californians go for President Barack Obama but the national vote swings to the Republican nominee by a tight margin?
Will Gov. Brown stand by the law, or will he refuse to support it, just as he refused to support Proposition 8, the voter-approved same-sex marriage measure, when he was the state's attorney general?
Brown spokesman Gil Duran replied, "Does not the question answer itself?"
Yes, and I smell a rat.