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Presidential Election Reform Act a Sham

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Sept 16, 2007:

Given the widespread anger at the record of the Bush administration, few people think it will be easy for a Republican to win a fair presidential election in 2008.

But the backers of a proposed California ballot initiative aim to make it easy – by getting around that inconvenient word “fair”.

Devised by Sacramento political attorney Thomas Hiltachk, the Presidential Election Reform Act is a clever confidence trick, disguised as reform of the Electoral College. The PERA’s true purpose is to guarantee about 20 additional electoral votes to the Republican Party, with the aim of setting up a GOP victory not just in the 2008 presidential election, but in many more to follow.

Here’s how it would work.

Currently, California, like most states, awards its 53 electoral votes as winner-take all. Many voters are unhappy with this system, and quite understandably, since it can serve to override the popular will. If voters in a congressional district elect a representative from Party A, most of them probably also support Party A’s presidential candidate. But the electoral vote from their district may very well end up going to the Party B’s candidate if Party B wins more of their state’s districts overall.

The PERA seeks to take advantage of voters’ frustration over outcomes like this. But it does so in the time-tested manner of the classic con game: distract the mark with bait, then make the switch.

The bait is the promise of reform. The switch is the unmentioned fact that the PERA would amount to a unilateral disarmament by California, a large blue state. Meanwhile, large red states, such as Texas, would continue under the old system.

The PERA’s backers call themselves Californians for Equal Representation. Since Equal Representation is part of their name, you might think they’d also throw their support behind a national reform effort, which could lead to equal representation everywhere – including red states. But that isn’t truly their aim, particularly since Californians for Equal Representation is actually a front for the California Republican Party.

The group’s address is initiative-writer Hiltachk’s law firm. Hiltachk is also Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election lawyer. And, as the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg has pointed out, he is a specialist in “initiatives that are the opposite of what they sound like – the Fair Pay Workplace Flexibility Act of 2006, for example” That one was, in fact, designed to slash overtime pay and make it almost impossible to raise the minimum wage.

Unsurprisingly, California Republicans enthusiastically endorsed the PERA at their convention in Indian Wells this past weekend. Interestingly, though, the governor has expressed reservations. As one of the world’s best known self-made men, Schwarzenegger has said he was uncomfortable with the “loser’s mentality” represented by “changing the rules in the middle of the game … saying I cannot win with those rules, so let me change the rules”.

The governor’s fellow Republicans would have done well to heed his advice, because if they win this campaign, it will be at the cost of serious damage both to their party and to democracy itself.

Why, after all, is the public angry at the Republican record in the White House and the Congress? To answer that question is to recite a list of failures and scandals: the falsehoods that spawned the war; the “compassionate conservatism” that brought Guantanamo Bay and the abandoning of New Orleans; the widespread spying on American citizens; the schemes of Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Mark Foley and others; the politicization of the Justice Department; and, sadly, so on.

In this context, do Republicans really want to trumpet their endorsement of another slick maneuver around the public interest?

If they do, they will likely pay even more heavily at the polls than they have so far. After all, as Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has shown so dramatically, most Americans are quite tolerant, but not if they conclude you’re a hypocrite.

Nevertheless, given events at its California convention, the Republican Party may well be bent on further self-destruction. But unfortunately, it is not only the party that will suffer. We all will. That’s because these repeated insults to trust erode voters’ basic belief in our laws and institutions. How many times can you play people for suckers before they conclude the whole thing is just a rigged game? Too many Americans have already come to just that conclusion.

We’ve learned this lesson before, in the Dust Bowl. You can exploit and exhaust the soil for so long, and you may even prosper while you do. And then, one day, the wind comes up and the soil blows away.

Well, it’s happening again. Only this time it’s happening to the soil of democracy – the public’s trust.

We call on all people of every party, including the many Republicans of good conscience – many of whom we have heard from who are deeply disturbed by the direction their party has taken – to repudiate the Presidential Election Reform Act.

By all means, let’s reform the Electoral College. But as we talk about how to do it, let’s use words with their original meanings, not new meanings we’ made up to mask selfish, ulterior motives. Just like fair pay doesn’t mean “slash my wages,” “reform” doesn’t mean “scam the system”.

“Reform” means make it better – for everyone.

That may seem quaint to the creative minds behind crafty tricks like the Presidential Election Reform Act, but it’s what democracy is supposed to be about.

By Zach Friend (chair, Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee), Vinz Koller (chair, Monterey County DCC) & Spencer Critchley (spokesman, Monterey County DCC).