A once-sleepy movement that would upend the Electoral College, reverse two centuries of constitutional practice and elect presidents by direct popular vote has quietly picked up momentum in recent days, with Republican Party leaders scrambling to stanch a steady stream of defections by GOP state lawmakers to the plan.
Shawn Steel, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, is so worried by the support building for the so-called "National Popular Vote Compact" that he is organizing an effort to put the Republican National Committee on record against the idea at its August meeting in Tampa, Fla.
"This is a very clever idea that bypasses the orderly process of amending the Constitution," said Mr. Steel, who is now an RNC member from California. "It's an extraordinarily radical idea, and we need to get some rollback going."
But it is Mr. Steel's home state that could provide the next major boost for the idea, as California lawmakers may be well on their way to throw the state's 55 electoral votes - the biggest single Election Day prize - into the compact kitty. As governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed the idea, but new Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has not said what he would do if the bill reaches his desk.
Under the idea introduced in 2006 by Stanford University consulting professor John Koza, states that join the NPV compact pledge to give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote - even if a majority of the state's voters supported another candidate. If a group of states with an accumulated tally of 270 electoral votes - the bare majority - sign on, the practical effect would be that the popular-vote winner instantly becomes the Electoral College winner as well.
The proposal won an initial burst of support among Democrats still irked by the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, when Republican George W. Bush won the election even after losing the popular vote to Al Gore. Seven states, all uniformly blue, and the District of Columbia have joined the compact.
Republicans, meanwhile, had largely dismissed the idea as a fringe academic exercise at best and a Democratic attempt to rewrite history at worst - until this year.
A rash of Republican state legislators have signed on as co-sponsors and even sponsors of this year's spate of NPV bills. At a May 12 news conference, two prominent Republicans — former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois — endorsed the compact.
"We're perpetually kind of rolling the dice in presidential elections in this country and risking electing someone who didn't get the most votes," Mr. Thompson said at the event. "It's an unnecessary risk."
Opponents are hustling to herd stray Republicans back into the fold. They chalked up a moral victory last month in the California Assembly after the Republican sponsor of the NPV bill, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, changed his mind and wound up abstaining on the May 19 floor vote.
"We haven't had consensus within our party," Mr. Nestande told the Desert (Calif.) Sun. "This is a big issue for the party structure, and obviously there's dissent, and I would like to get a consensus on the issue."
The bill was approved anyway by a vote of 51-21, with eight abstentions, and awaits a vote in the state Senate, where it is expected to pass easily. If signed by Mr. Brown, who has yet to take a position, it would bring compact backers halfway to their goal of 270 electoral votes.
Republican leaders attribute the sudden, surprising GOP enthusiasm for NPV to the involvement of Tom Golisano. A billionaire and three-time Independence Party candidate for New York governor, Mr. Golisano joined the movement in February and has dedicated himself to seeing the compact implemented.
As a result, the compact's leadership has changed from "university professors who didn't have a lot of political smarts," as Mr. Steel put it, to a cadre of experienced political hands who are now reaching out to Republican lawmakers and tea party activists.
"What's changed is that this very wealthy billionaire has decided this is going to be his legacy bequest," said Mr. Steel. "He wants to completely shake up and turn the American presidential electioneering system upside down."
Conservatives are leery of Mr. Golisano's bona fides — he gave $1 million to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and has donated to the Clinton Foundation — but he registered as a Republican in New York in 2005, and recently registered as a Republican in Florida after moving there to avoid New York's high income taxes, said Pat Rosenstiel, National Popular Vote senior consultant.
"At the end of the day, this is a bipartisan effort, no matter what former chairman Steel says," said Mr. Rosenstiel.
Among those now speaking out on the compact's behalf are Saul Anuzis, who placed second in the 2011 RNC chairmanship vote, and Giovanni Cicione, a former Rhode Island Republican Party chairman. Mr. Cicione bristles at suggestions that he is backing the plan for a paycheck. He said he has paid only for his time and expenses and that "I've never met Tom Golisano and he's never paid me anything."
Mr. Cicione's support stems from his frustration over presidential candidates from both parties who devote their time and energy to winning the dozen or so tossup states while states like Rhode Island, whose meager three electoral votes are dependably Democratic, are ignored.
"I'm doing this because I care about the state of Rhode Island and I believe this will help states like Rhode Island," said Mr. Cicione. "Unless we do something radical and important like National Popular Vote, I don't think we're going to get back to the balance envisioned by the Founding Fathers."
While critics agree his concern for such states is laudable, they fear the law of unintended consequences. They predict the compact will result in presidential races in which the focus shifts from the battleground states to regions with the largest concentrations of voters, namely big urban areas.
Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party, said such a system favors Democrats because their voters are concentrated in big cities. A map on his website, politicalvanguard.com, shows tall towers of blue urban voters surrounded by a vast flat sea of red voters.
Democrats "are for it because they get votes almost exclusively from major urban areas. The strategy is to eke out victories nationwide that way," said Mr. Del Beccaro.
Such an approach is also rife for voter fraud, given the recent history of groups like ACORN manufacturing Democratic voters in urban centers, he said.
"Their constituencies are there, and it makes it easier for groups like ACORN to register voters by compliant and noncompliant means," said Mr. Del Beccaro. "[Democrats] are also pushing for same-day voter registration. If you combine those things, there's a huge opportunity for fraud."
The compact's supporters insist that the potential for abuse is no greater under the compact than it is under the current system, given the recent history of tight races in tossup states such as Ohio and Florida.
"Right now, you can steal 10 electoral votes with a very small number of votes," said Mr. Rosenstiel.
Then there's the constitutional question. Critics insist that such state compacts are banned by the Constitution, while supporters say the agreement is no different from multistate arrangements such as the PowerBall lottery.
What's indisputable is that the debate over the National Popular Vote Compact is no longer merely academic. "It got under the radar at the start," said Mr. Del Beccaro. "It is flying under the radar no more."
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