Under the guise of “electoral reform,” California Republicans are preparing to launch a deceptively-named ballot initiative which could seriously distort the results of next year’s presidential election.

In mid-July, Thomas W. Hiltachk, acting on behalf of an entity called Californians for Equal Representation, submitted to the state attorney general’s office the so-called Presidential Election Reform Act to eliminate the current system of awarding the state’s 55 electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Instead, all but two electoral votes would be awarded based on who wins in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts.

Since then, a spate of articles in publications ranging from the New Yorker and Newsweek to the Los Angeles Times and California Progress Report have used adjectives like “stealth,” “mischief” and “audacious power play” to describe the measure.

With over 10 percent of the nation’s 538 electoral votes, California voters, who since 1992 have consistently favored Democratic presidential candidates, play an especially important role in presidential balloting.

Republicans now occupy 19 of the state’s 53 congressional seats. In 2004, President Bush won majorities in 22 congressional districts while losing statewide to John Kerry by 54-44 percent. Had the proposed change been in effect, the resulting shift to Bush would have been comparable to his winning of Ohio’s 20 electoral votes, which turned the election his way.

In a telephone interview, California Labor Federation political director Bryan Blum called the measure “not real reform, but an effort by corporate interests and the Republican Party to unfairly manipulate the system to elect a Republican president.” Calling the California-only effort “a naked attempt by the Republicans to keep power,” Blum said the federation is “totally opposed” and hopes its advocates will “see the folly of this” and not move forward. If the measure does proceed, he said, the labor movement will work vigorously for its defeat.

The measure is aimed for the June 3, 2008, primary, expected to draw a low turnout because California has shifted its presidential primary to Feb. 5 while leaving other primaries in place for June.

Hiltachk is a partner in the law firm Bell, McAndrew & Hiltachk, which represents the California Republican Party. The Presidential Election Reform Act is the latest in a series of under-the-radar actions in which the firm has been involved. Others include the recall election that resulted in Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s replacing the recently re-elected Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, and the so-called Fair Play Workplace Flexibility Act of 2006, which would have marginally raised the state minimum wage while virtually barring future raises and gutting the state’s overtime pay rules.

Hiltachk was formerly Schwarzenegger’s personal lawyer for election matters. Californians for Equal Representation uses the law firm’s address.

Schwarzenegger’s office, the California Republican Party and the Republican National Committee all said they have nothing to do with the proposed initiative. “We’ll take a serious look at it once it qualifies for the ballot, said State Republican Party chair Ron Nehring.

Schwarzenegger told the Sacramento Bee, “I haven’t looked at this, but I’m interested to learn more about it.”

Fund-raising was to start earlier this month, to raise up to $500,000 for polling and other preparatory work. Actually gathering the needed 434,000 signatures could cost $2 million.

Currently, only Maine and Nebraska, with nine electoral votes between them, award electoral votes based on congressional districts, though some other states are considering changes. A similar but Democrat-sponsored move in North Carolina, with 15 electoral votes, has reportedly been sidetracked for now.

mbechtel @pww.org