A show of hands: What words do you associate with Americans? No, not "no money down." Name one quality we like to think matters most to us.
Fairness, right? That makes us decent people, but it also makes us suckers. Tell us we're being unfair and we're spoiling to prove you wrong.
California Republicans are playing us for fools.
Under one of those ginned-up names that God Herself couldn't fault -- Californians for Equal Representation -- they're pushing a crafty ballot initiative to change the way electoral votes are divvied up in California. Right now, it's winner-take-all. They go to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes, period.
But Republicans, with that great American sense of fair play, say this isn't right. What about those other voters whose guy lost? They get no voice.
The GOP's plan for "fixing" this is to change the rules, handing out electoral votes by congressional district. Whichever candidate wins the district gets its electoral vote. No surprise that under these rules, in 2004, George W. Bush would have taken 22 California electoral votes away from John Kerry, who won the state by 1.2 million votes.
Yes, indeed, winner-take-all is just so darned unfair -- downtrodden GOP presidential candidates have won California a mere nine out of the last 14 elections.
We didn't hear a peep from Republicans back then about disenfranchised Democrats. Only when California began going for the "D" presidential candidate did things suddenly look unfair. So when the initiative's spokesman, Kevin Eckery, tells my colleague George Skelton that "this has nothing to do with empowering parties. It has everything to do with empowering voters," he must be auditioning for "The Daily Show."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a radio show that the initiative "almost feels like a loser's mentality, saying, 'I cannot win with those rules. So let me change the rules.' "
If this "fairness" is so vital to our democracy, why not change the rules in Florida too? Or Texas, or Ohio? Oh yes -- they must be fair already. Their winner-take-all electoral votes went Republican. Under the California GOP "fairness" rule, Kerry would have taken 19 electoral votes that went to Bush in those states.
California Republicans tried this on themselves in 1979. A left-to-right Republican array, including former President Ford, tried to slow Ronald Reagan's rush to the White House by proposing to allot the state's GOP delegates proportionally. Twenty years later, some of them tried to do the same thing to Bush's presidential steamroller. If they couldn't sell it to themselves then, why should the rest of us buy it now?
Democrats' hands are not spotless in this. They tried the proportional divvy on the 2004 ballot in Colorado, where voters stomped it flat. North Carolina Democrats are pushing for it now, but surely big-foot Democrats realize they can hardly gripe about underhanded Republicans in California and let Democrats pull the same stunt in North Carolina.
All this just demonstrates, again, how screwed up the election system is. A president of the entire nation should be elected under voting rules that apply to the entire nation.
Larry Sabato runs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, and his new book, "A More Perfect Constitution," offers ideas for tidying up the Constitution. He says this GOP initiative would make the system "even dumber than the one we have now."
How won't it work? Let him count the ways: Congressional districts are "terribly mal-apportioned" and already distort voting. Democratic votes are herded into higher concentrations in fewer districts, but Republican votes, he says, are spread out with narrower winning margins in as many districts as possible, leaving Democrats "underrepresented if you go district by district." And if this system went nationwide, Sabato says, we'd see a lot more elections like 2000, in which one candidate wins the popular vote but the other wins in the electoral college.
Democrats know it'll be cheaper to keep this off the ballot than to fight it if it gets there, so they're enlisting "fraud busters" like Nick Warshaw, a junior at Claremont McKenna College and head of California College Democrats.
He's already done two "interventions" -- one at a recruitment fair for college organizations, when some freshmen in front of the Democratic group's table were about to sign initiative petitions handed to them by Republican students, and again outside an Albertsons. Warshaw spotted a friend being lobbied for his signature. "I explained to him how this isn't about fairness" -- a talking point from his "fraud buster" training. "The Republican guy was kind of shocked that anyone would come up and say anything." Are the GOP's paid signature gatherers ready to square off with phalanxes of Nick Warshaws?
Oh, the guy outside Albertsons didn't sign. It's a lesson worth remembering: Friends don't let friends sign dangerous initiatives.