Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a chilly reception Thursday to a GOP-backed plan to change the way California awards electoral votes in presidential elections - a proposal critics say could tilt the outcome in favor of Republicans.
"In principle, I don't like to change the rules in the middle of the game," the Republican governor told reporters.
Schwarzenegger added he wasn't versed in details of the ballot proposal and stressed he wasn't taking a definitive position. But his uneasy response is likely to make it harder for supporters to build momentum and could chill fundraising.
The proposed ballot initiative is being pushed by Thomas Hiltachk, a lawyer in a Sacramento firm that represents the state Republican Party. A draft of the proposed initiative says nixing the winner-take-all system would give presidential candidates "an incentive to campaign in California."
California currently awards all 55 of its electoral votes to the statewide winner in presidential elections - the largest single prize in the nation. Under the proposal, the winner would get only two electoral votes and the rest would be distributed to the winning candidate in each of the state's congressional districts.
That, in effect, would create 53 races, each with one electoral vote up for grabs.
Although liberal-leaning California has gone Democratic in the last four presidential elections, 19 of its 53 congressional districts are represented by Republicans. A Republican presidential candidate could lose the state overall but still pick up 19 electoral votes if he or she finished first in each of those districts.
During the 2004 election, President Bush was handily defeated in California but carried 22 of the state's districts. If the proposed change had been in effect then, he would have been awarded 22 of the state's electoral votes with Democrat John Kerry winning the rest.
Of the 50 states, only Maine and Nebraska allocate electoral votes by congressional district.
Also Thursday, Schwarzenegger said he would try for a second time to reform rules at the heart of how California selects legislators and members of Congress - a system he says has all the fairness of loaded dice.
His idea is to give an independent commission the authority to draw district boundaries. Currently, legislators slice up districts for themselves and Congress every 10 years to reflect population shifts, a practice often criticized as a blatant conflict of interest. In other words, they draw the districts they run in.
Many California districts are heavily skewed to favor candidates from one party, turning them into fortresses of incumbency. Several attempts to take that role away from lawmakers over the years have been rejected by voters, including Schwarzenegger's 2005 proposal.
The governor wants the proposal on the Feb. 5 ballot, the same date the state holds its presidential primary.