Republicans Want to Reform the Electoral College to Help Themselves

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Seeking to cut into Democrats' advantage, the plan would eliminate winner-take-all elections and allocate electoral votes based on congressional districts.

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Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Republicans alarmed at the apparent challenges they face in winning the White House are preparing an all-out assault on the Electoral College system in critical states, an initiative that would significantly ease the party's path to the Oval Office.

Senior Republicans say they will try to leverage their party's statehouse majorities in Democratic-leaning states in an effort to end the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Instead, bills that will be introduced in several Democratic states would award electoral votes on a proportional basis.

Already, two states -- Maine and Nebraska -- award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. The candidate who wins the most votes statewide takes the final two at-large electoral votes. Only once, when President Obama won a congressional district based in Omaha in 2008, has either of those states actually split their vote.

But if more reliably blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were to award their electoral votes proportionally, Republicans would be able to eat into what has become a deep Democratic advantage.

All three states have given the Democratic nominee their electoral votes in each of the last six presidential elections. Now, senior Republicans in Washington are overseeing legislation in all three to end the winner-take-all system.

Obama won the trio in 2008, handing him 46 electoral votes. Had electoral votes been awarded by district, Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have cut into that lead. Final election results show that Romney won nine of Michigan's 14 districts, five of eight in Wisconsin, and at least 12 of 18 in Pennsylvania. Allocate the two statewide votes in each state to Obama, and Romney would have emerged from the three Democratic states with 26 electoral votes, compared with just 19 for Obama (and one district where votes are still being counted).

Republicans are able to contemplate such a bold plan because of their electoral success in 2010, when the party won control of state legislative chambers and the governorships in all three states, giving them total control over the levers of state government.

"If you did the calculation, you'd see a massive shift of electoral votes in states that are blue and fully [in] red control," said one senior Republican taking an active role in pushing the proposal. "There's no kind of autopsy and outreach that can grab us those electoral votes that quickly."

The proposals, the senior GOP official said, are likely to come up in each state's legislative session in 2013. Bills have been drafted, and legislators are talking to party bosses to craft strategy. Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, has briefed Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Chief of Staff Jeff Larson on his state's proposal. The proposal "is not being met with the 'We can't do that' answer. It's being met with 'I've already got a bill started,'" the official said. Republican state legislators are motivated to act after Romney's loss. And the party lost legislative seats in all three states, adding urgency to pass the measures before voters head to the polls in 2014.

Tweaks of electoral-vote rules are hardly unprecedented, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University. State legislatures routinely changed Electoral College allocation rules in the early years of the republic; the political fallout then can inform present-day lawmakers considering the changes.

"State legislative elections became tantamount to the presidential election in a state. Local issues were put aside for presidential politics," McDonald said. "These states legislators thus risk the nationalization of their state politics, to the detriment of their personal careers. State legislators learned that once they fixed the Electoral College rules, national politics no longer dominated state elections."

In the long run, Republican operatives say they would like to pursue similar Electoral College reform in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Obama won all three states, but Romney won a majority of the congressional districts in each state.

Any changes to the allocation of Electoral College votes would have a major impact on each party's path to the White House. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have given Democrats their collective 246 electoral votes in each of the last six elections. That virtually forces Republicans to run the swing-state table.

But rewriting the rules would dramatically shrink or eliminate the Democratic advantage, because of the way House districts are drawn. The decennial redistricting process has dumped huge percentages of Democratic voters into some urban districts, while Republican voters are spread over a wider number of districts, giving the party an advantage. This year, Democratic House candidates won more than 1 million more votes than Republican candidates, but Republicans won 33 more seats.

And if Republicans go ahead with their plan, Democrats don't have the option of pushing back. After the 2010 wave, Democrats control all levers of government in only one state -- West Virginia -- that Romney won this year. Some consistently blue presidential states have Republican legislatures; the reverse is not true.

Some Republicans acknowledge that the party would open itself up to charges of political opportunism, but that they would frame the proposal as a chance to make the system more fair.

"With the frustration of the current system -- and the fact that almost everyone would agree proportional or CD is more representative and maybe more fair than the current winner-take-all -- Republicans have a strong, righteous argument," Anuzis said. "However, the motivation would be viewed as being purely political since it hasn't been done before."

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