Is GOP scheming to steal another election?

Just weeks ago, a proposed ballot initiative by far-right Republicans with links to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani seemed dead, after efforts to put it on California’s June primary ballot imploded amid secretive financial maneuvering by its supporters.

Now, like Freddy Krueger in “Nightmare on Elm Street,” it’s back!

The ballot initiative, if it were to become law, would apportion all but two of the state’s electoral votes according to the top vote getter in each congressional district, instead of the current winner-take-all system. Had these provisions been law in 2004, President Bush would have won 22 electoral votes in California, though John Kerry won the state by 54 percent.

Supporters of Electoral College reform emphasize that, to be fair, any change in the system must apply equally to all 50 states.

California has 55 of the Electoral College’s 538 votes, the most of any state. California’s winner-take-all system is currently used by every state except Maine and Nebraska, who only have nine electoral votes between them.

Late last month, just before Halloween, a new group of campaigners — also with ties to Giuliani — picked up the muddied flag of the so-called Presidential Election Reform Act.

On Oct. 22, political strategist David Gilliard announced he would revive the signature-gathering campaign, now called “California Counts.” Working with him are strategist Ed Rollins and fundraiser Anne Dunsmore. Resuming his earlier role overseeing the signature gathering is Mike Arno of Arno Political Consultants, one of the nation’s leading signature-gathering companies.

Dunsmore was Giuliani’s national deputy campaign manager until she resigned Sept. 26. She also raised substantial funds for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. Rollins formerly worked for Bill Simon, who now chairs Giuliani’s California campaign. Both also worked on campaigns for Katherine Harris, who as Florida secretary of state in 2000 played a key role in securing the presidency for George Bush.

Giuliani has denied any connection with the initiative. But in late September, just as the first effort was collapsing, he told a Santa Barbara, Calif., television station he liked the idea.

In a telephone interview, top state Democratic Party spokesperson Bob Mulholland called the renewed effort “a fraud on the voters, a waste of voters’ time, and a sign the Republican Party is in disarray.” Mulholland said he believes the measure has no chance to make it to the ballot, and in any case would be crushed in the election.

The California Labor Federation’s political director, Bryan Blum, emphasized the revival “is not out of genuine public interest. Right-wing zealots desperate to hold onto the presidency will go to any length with any crazy idea, no matter how undemocratic.”

Blum said the labor federation is working to alert the public “to be very careful before signing any initiative,” and especially the electoral reform measure.

“Once the public hears the facts, support drops,” Blum said. He said even some prominent Republicans, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock, have expressed skepticism.

During the initiative’s first incarnation, the Democratic Party put together a team of over 1,000 “fraudbusters” to spread the word about the real nature of the measure and monitor signature-gathering efforts.

At a Nov. 1 news conference in Sacramento, Art Torres, state Democratic Party chair, detailed some of their observations. One petition was circulated at an Oct. 27 antiwar demonstration under the guise of a call to end all war funding, he said, while at another late October event it was camouflaged as a call for hospital care for children.

Torres and Kristina Wilfore, head of the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), said they had called on Attorney General Jerry Brown to “rapidly police” signature gathering to make sure no fraudulent initiatives make it to the California ballot next year.

Wilfore also warned that Arno Political Consultants has a reputation for misleading voters.

Torres told the press conference that after a concerted information campaign by the Democratic Party, labor and others, public support for the measure now stands at just 22 percent.

The first campaign collapsed in late September, when its leaders abruptly resigned after controversy erupted over efforts to conceal the identity of a mystery donor. The donor was then revealed to be billionaire hedge fund executive Paul Singer, a policy adviser and major fundraiser for Giuliani.

The new effort has inherited over 100,000 signatures gathered during the earlier campaign. Almost 434,000 signatures are required to get an initiative on the California ballot, and campaigns generally aim for about 700,000 to ensure that enough are valid.

Supporters are aiming for the June primary, when turnout is expected to be low. But they also claim that even if the measure is delayed until November, it could still affect the 2008 presidential election because the Electoral College does not meet until December.

Some observers have noted that the new signature-gathering effort lagged after the first few days, and speculate that the campaign may be short of funds. But other reports indicate that wealthy San Diego-area Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, a major funder of the state’s 2003 recall election, has now joined the campaign.

mbechtel @pww.org