NPR aired without challenging GOP misrepresentation of CA electoral college initiative's effect

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Reporting on a Republican-backed California ballot initiative that would award the state's electoral votes by congressional district, NPR correspondent Ina Jaffe aired an audio clip of Republican consultant Dave Gilliard, who asserted: "We want [presidential candidates] to come out here and actually campaign throughout California. We want them to go to the Central Valley, and Inland Empire, and the North Coast, and talk to Californians about what's important to California." In fact, California has only three congressional districts that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) or President Bush carried by 5 percentage points or less during the 2004 election, and thus, if the initiative passed, campaigns would presumably have little incentive "to come out here and actually campaign." Further, Jaffe's report did not note one of the major arguments made in opposition to the California initiative -- that it reapportions the electoral votes of only California, rather than applying a nationwide standard for the distribution of electoral votes.

On the November 26 edition of National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, reporting on a controversial Republican-backed California ballot initiative that would award the state's electoral votes by congressional district, correspondent Ina Jaffe stated: "In the past four presidential elections, California has become reliably Democratic, so presidential candidates usually come here just to raise money and that's about it." Jaffe then aired an audio clip of Republican consultant Dave Gilliard, who is managing the campaign to get the proposal on the ballot, asserting: "We want them to come out here and actually campaign throughout California. We want them to go to the Central Valley, and Inland Empire, and the North Coast, and talk to Californians about what's important to California." In fact, as Media Matters for America has documented, California has only three congressional districts that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) or President Bush carried by 5 percentage points or less during the 2004 presidential election, and thus, if the initiative passed, campaigns would presumably have little incentive "to come out here and actually campaign," as Gilliard claimed. Further, Jaffe's report did not note one of the major arguments made in opposition to the California initiative -- that it reapportions the electoral votes of only California, rather than applying a nationwide standard for the distribution of electoral votes.

According to a Media Matters analysis of data from the Almanac of American Politics, published by the nonpartisan National Journal Group, only three California congressional districts were carried by 5 percentage points or less in 2004, providing presidential candidates little reason to campaign throughout the state if electors were chosen by district rather than statewide. Contrary to the claim made by Gilliard, it would thus make little sense for a presidential candidate "to come out here" to a state offering as few potentially competitive electoral votes as Wyoming or Delaware, instead of campaigning in "swing" states such as Ohio (20 electoral votes) or Florida (27 electoral votes).

Indeed, as San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz wrote in a September 9 column:

So clear is the partisan bent of these districts -- by design, with the assistance of sophisticated computer modeling -- that it's hard to imagine that more than a few would truly be up for grabs in any presidential election.

In reality, if California were to apportion electors by congressional district, its current prize of 55 electoral votes suddenly would be diminished to a competition for perhaps five electors (equivalent to Idaho or West Virginia) at the most.

Further, as Media Matters has previously noted, under the GOP plan, California voters would actually have less influence on the outcome of national elections, not more, as Gilliard suggested. Under the state's current winner-take-all system, California awards 55 electoral votes to its winner, far more than any other state. Under the GOP plan, it would be essentially impossible for the winner of California to gain 55 electoral votes. Indeed, if this plan had been in effect in 2004, California would have awarded Kerry 33 electoral votes and Bush 22 votes. Rather than providing a margin of 55 electoral votes to its winner, California would have provided an 11-vote margin -- reducing California's clout to that of Indiana.

Jaffe's report also did not mention another key point made in opposition to the initiative. As Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, noted in an October 28 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Republicans have not sought a nationwide reform of the electoral college system, but rather have "introduce[d] such plans piecemeal in states where they would benefit":

If the Republicans truly believe that it would be fairer and more democratic to choose electors by district, then instead of introducing such plans piecemeal in states where they would benefit, they should introduce a constitutional amendment to create a national district system -- one that would apply to Texas and South Carolina as well as California. And if the Democrats truly want to prevent procedural "power grabs," they should sign on to such a proposal -- or offer a "proportional plan" or (better yet) actively back a national popular election that would eliminate the electoral college altogether.

If both parties worked together on such legislation, jointly committing themselves to remedy a design flaw in our Constitution, they might even succeed in dissipating a bit of the cynicism that the electorate so frequently expresses about political parties that seem far more interested in their own welfare than the fate of the nation.

Indeed, California Democrats have proposed two ballot initiatives (here and here) that would enter the state into a "voting compact" with other states requiring members to award their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote if "states cumulatively possessing a majority of electoral votes have enacted this agreement in substantially the same form."

From the November 26 edition of NPR's Morning Edition:

STEVE INSKEEP (host): Now, the presidential campaign could be transformed by a proposal in California. Depending on where you sit, this is an effort for reform or an attempt to steal an election. California is the election's biggest prize. The statewide winner gets all 55 electoral votes, which is a substantial percentage of what you need to win the White House. In recent years, the votes have gone steadily to Democrats. But, a proposed ballot initiative would divide the votes by congressional districts. Instead of winner-take-all, the state-wide loser would take some. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

JAFFE: A few weeks ago, we reported that this initiative campaign was dead. It had raised no money to pay for gathering signatures. Ultimately, the initiative's organizers walked away. But the initiative itself was still on the books, and an entirely new crew of supporters took it up.

CHRIS LEHANE (Democratic consultant): We said we thought that this would be the Freddy Kreuger of initiatives and come back to life. Indeed, at some level, it has --

JAFFE:-- says Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, who's spearheading the effort to defeat the measure. But the prize offered by the electoral college initiative was just too tantalizing, he says, for Republicans to let it fade away.

LEHANE: It would effectively give the Republicans between 20 and 22 electoral college votes, essentially handing them a state the size of Ohio, which would make it virtually impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for a Democrat to be able to win in 2008, even if that Democrat wins the majority vote.

JAFFE: But the initiative has nothing to do with partisan advantage, says Dave Gilliard, the new campaign manager. Theoretically, Democrats could benefit, too.

GILLIARD: For instance, in 1988, Michael Dukakis won 48 percent of the vote in California, so it doesn't make any sense for either party to be for a winner-take-all system.

JAFFE: But in California politics, 1988 is a long time ago. In the past four presidential elections, California has become reliably Democratic, so presidential candidates usually come here just to raise money and that's about it. Gilliard says this initiative could change that.

GILLIARD: We want them to come out here and actually campaign all throughout California. We want them to go to the Central Valley and Inland Empire, and the North Coast and talk to Californians about what's important to California.

JAFFE: Unlike the first campaign for the initiative, this one's not broke. A large share of the credit for that goes to one of the Republican operatives who revived the measure. She's Anne Dunsmore, who was Rudy Giuliani's chief fundraiser till she left the campaign in September.

Other movers and shakers backing the measure have also been tied to Giuliani, or to the co-chair of his campaign in California. Opponent Chris Lehane thinks Giuliani's trying to give himself an advantage in the state if he becomes the Republican nominee. All these connections, he says, can't just be a coincidence.

LEHANE: I'm originally from the state of Maine, and we used to have a saying that when you go to bed at night and there's no snow on the ground, and you wake up and there's snow on the ground, you can pretty safely conclude it snowed.

JAFFE: So opponents of the measure have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Asked for comment, the Giuliani campaign's deputy communications director, Maria Comella sent a written statement. It says, quote, "The campaign had no knowledge and no involvement in this effort, and we'd be fine leaving it as it is. California is a state that Mayor Giuliani puts into play in the general election regardless of what rules are in place."

TONY QUINN (political analyst): You know, I think the Democrats have overreacted.

JAFFE: --says California political analyst Tony Quinn.

QUINN: The likelihood of this ever passing is quite slim. I suspect that it is more a matter that the Republicans would like to put it on the ballot, drive the Democrats crazy and make them spend $20 million defeating it.

JAFFE: Support for the measure is low. Various polls put it anywhere from the mid-20's to the mid-40's. Nevertheless, Democrats are throwing every obstacle available in the initiative's path. The latest is a request for the Los Angeles city attorney to investigate a news story that the initiative campaign was trading food in exchange for signatures among the homeless of Skid Row.

GILLIARD: I'm not aware of that, no.

JAFFE: Says campaign manager Dave Gilliard.

GILLIARD: The fact is, most homeless people aren't registered to vote, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense to go try to get them to sign these, when you can go out to a area that has a high percentage of registered voters, a suburban area, for instance.

JAFFE: But even there, the campaign faced another obstacle. Many of those suburban areas were out of bounds for a couple of weeks because of the Southern California wildfires. Still, Gilliard insists, they'll have more than 434,000 signatures needed to qualify by December 1. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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California Initiative
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