Rigging the Next Presidential Election

January 25, 2013

Republicans in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are proposing to change the way electoral votes are awarded in presidential elections.  Instead of the winner of the state getting all the electoral votes, they would be awarded by congressional district. It is a blatant attempt to rig the system to help the next Republican presidential nominee.

At the individual state’s level, the change at first sounds reasonable.  If you win 51% of the popular vote, you shouldn't get 100% of the electoral votes.  But if the change is only made in states that vote Democratic in presidential elections, while states like Texas still give all their electoral votes to the Republican candidates, the system becomes massively unfair.  It is not a coincidence that these four states have Republican legislatures but President Obama won them in 2008 and 2012. As far as I know, no Republicans legislators in states won by Mitt Romney are proposing similar "reforms."

Even at the state level, some of the proposals have a nasty partisan tilt. Under the proposed Virginia system, Mitt Romney would have won nine electoral votes to Obama's four, even though the President won the state by 150,000 votes.  (This is the same Virginia Senate that took advantage of a Democratic senator's trip to Washington for the Inauguration to push through a plan to redraw their districts and add up to seven new Republican seats.)

The electoral vote rigging idea is not just coming from a few errant state legislators. It was essentially endorsed by the chairman of the Republican National Committee. In the past, both parties have pushed the system for more favorable treatment, particularly in gerrymandering congressional districts, but this is the most blatant attempt to unfairly fix the rules in a presidential contest.

Over the years, many Democrats have complained about the Electoral College, including the winner-take-all approach to apportioning votes. That was particularly true after a majority of Americans voted for Al Gore, but George W. Bush won more electoral votes and the presidency. But their proposed solution was always to switch to a national popular vote system. You can argue if that's the best approach, or if the Electoral College provides some regional balance, but you can't dispute that it’s a fair system that honors our democracy. Manipulating the way votes are awarded in selected states for partisan reasons does not meet either of those tests.

What will happen? The good news is that Republicans are trying this four years before the next election, so there's time to respond. Democrats should push the plan already approved by some state legislatures to force a national popular vote system. Under this approach, states would pledge to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. It would take effect once states representing 270 electoral votes have passed the law. If that happens, these Watergate-worthy attempts by Republicans will ultimately have a positive outcome.


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