A Republican operative reveals his initiative to award presidential electors by congressional district in states across the country.
Republican legislators in several states have begun pushing to apportion electoral-college votes by congressional district, a move that has Democrats up in arms. Had a similar scheme been in effect in 2012, nationally or in a handful of key states, Mitt Romney could have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. (David Graham explains the idea, and why it's so controversial, here.)
Up to now, these efforts appear to have sprouted independently as the work of individual lawmakers in Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The Virginia plan has passed a state Senate committee and could become law as soon as next week.*
But now a Republican operative has a plan to take the idea national.
Jordan Gehrke, a D.C.-based strategist who's worked on presidential and Senate campaigns, is teaming up with Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio Republican secretary of state, to raise money for an effort to propose similar electoral reforms in states across the country, he told me this week.
Gehrke and Blackwell have been talking to major donors and plan to send a fundraising email to grassroots conservatives early next week. The money would go toward promoting similar plans to apportion electoral votes by congressional district in states across the country, potentially even hiring lobbyists in state capitals.
Gehrke isn't saying which states the project might initially target. He says he'd like to see the plan implemented in every state, not just the ones where clever redistricting has given Republicans an edge, and he justifies it in policy, not political terms.
A presidential voting system where the electoral college was apportioned by congressional district might not be perfectly fair, he says, but it would be better than what we have now. It would bring democracy closer to the people, force presidential candidates to address the concerns of a more varied swath of the American populace, and give more clout to rural areas that are too often ignored. And while it might help Republicans in states like Virginia, it could give Democrats a boost in states like Texas. Ideally, this new system, implemented nationally, would strengthen both parties, he claims.
I interviewed Gehrke about the plan and the many objections to it; an edited transcript follows.
Why do this?
What we have currently is a system where there are 10 battleground states and 40 states that don't matter. So all the federal government has to do [to secure the incumbent party's reelection] is buy off people in the 10 states and ignore the issues of the people in the 40. You're asking for a larger, more intrusive federal government -- that's what [the current electoral vote system of] winner-take-all does.
You end up with a situation where on Day 32 of the [2010 Deepwater Horizon] oil spill, Obama has not gone to Louisiana. But on Day 36, when oil starts lapping the shore in Florida, all of a sudden he's down there walking around with [former Florida governor] Charlie Crist. Or you get, in 2000, Bush supposedly running as a free trader -- but he comes out for steel tariffs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, because he's trying to win those states. And then in 2008, when West Virginia is no longer in play, Obama feels free to wage a war on coal.
We should have a system where the people running for president have to worry about what's happening in individual congressional districts. It brings government a lot closer to the people.
If that's your goal, why not just get rid of the electoral college and elect presidents by pure popular vote?
Abolishing the electoral college is not something I support; it's what the Founders intended. This is not abolishing or getting around the electoral college at all. Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution gives exclusive plenary power to state legislatures to award electors in the manner in which they see fit. Massachusetts has changed the way they award their electors multiple times throughout history. There's a letter from Jefferson to the Virginia delegation asking, after he lost to Adams, to change the way they [awarded electors] before the next election.
Already, Maine and Nebraska award their electors in this way, and nobody seems to be outraged about it. The alternative is something like National Popular Vote [an interstate compact currently in place in eight states and D.C. that would award electors to the winner of the overall vote nationally]. It's just not practical -- folks have been trying to do it for years and they need a lot more states to get it done. It's not going to happen anytime soon. This [electoral votes by congressional district plan] is a practical solution to a real problem. State legislators anywhere can simply get together and say, hey, how do I get more attention for my state? How do I make sure every vote counts?
I'm not really here to argue for or against this or that electoral system. All I think we have to prove is that this is better than the current system. The current system's a mess.
Isn't this really a way for Republicans to take advantage of their advantageous 2010 redistricting efforts, which used crazy gerrymandering to give them control of congressional delegations and state legislatures in states where they can't win a majority of the voters, like Virginia?
The question is fairness. We already have a system where you can win the popular vote and lose the election. I'm not saying this is a perfect system; I'm saying that, given that we have a fundamentally imperfect system, this is an improvement. Ultimately, it's very hard to argue that it's better to have a system where presidential candidates can ignore the majority of voters and not address their concerns. I'm not saying our system is perfect, but is this equal or better than what we already have? Do you believe it's acceptable to have, say, 100 million out of 130 million Americans whose votes effectively dont matter? And this other small group whose votes matter more than anybody else's, and that distorts policy outcomes with candidates trying to buy them off?
The common thing you're seeing in those states [where this is being proposed] is that major cities dominate the statewide vote, but meanwhile, people are voting for Republicans in state legislatures, assemblies, and constitutional offices. The divide between rural and urban America has never been bigger in some ways than it is right now. I really think that's what this is about. You've got people in Michigan saying, "Why is it that this is Mitt Romney's home state, yet he only came here [to campaign] one time?" It's the winner-take-all system. "Why should Ohio's votes matter any more than our votes do?" What you're seeing is that in a lot of these states, these guys want more attention paid to them. If you're a Democrat and you just won the presidential election but your state got ignored, you're probably OK with it. If you're a Republican, you're probably a little more bothered by it.
But Virginia, the state that's now looking at passing this, hardly got ignored in the presidential election. It was one of the top swing states.
Well, people in Northern Virginia didn't have any problem being paid attention to, but people in other parts of Virginia certainly did. I think that's what you're seeing [behind this legislation] -- legislators who represent individual districts that have gotten ignored. Look at Ohio, the preeminent battleground state in every single cycle. People in Cleveland get plenty of attention paid to them, but meanwhile, Obama's waging a war on coal in Southeast Ohio. I promise you, there are a lot of guys in Southeast Ohio who wish Obama had to come there and answer their questions and deal with them and ask for their votes. The fact is, he didn't, and it governed his policy in a way that hurt them.
Isn't that just because there aren't as many voters in Southeast Ohio? The reason rural America is losing power just because that's not where the population is anymore, and politicians are going to go where the votes are -- that's democracy.
The difference, though, is that rural and urban America increasingly have different goals, different aspirations, and different goals they use to evaluate candidates. We're seeing a situation where people in Michigan say, wait a minute, why should Detroit always get to pick our candidates? I go to Detroit once a year.
Here's the thing, this is how we already do it [in presidential primaries]. This is not a radical idea. This is why Obama beat Hillary. This is why Santorum was able to stay in [as long as he did against Romney]. He lost Michigan, but he split with Romney in terms of delegates [apportioned by congressional district]. We already do this. We already think this is a perfectly fine way for parties to award their delegates. It's not some newfangled, crazy idea.
I've heard an objection to this idea from some Republicans, who worry that it would have given Obama, for example, an incentive to campaign and turn out voters in their districts, which could hurt reelection chances for Republican members of Congress. Have you heard that objection from your colleagues in the GOP?
The point of this is not to help or hurt Republicans. Competitive elections are a good thing.
I also think this solves the voter-fraud problem. There's a perception that voter fraud happens on both sides -- Democrats believe Republicans do it, Republicans believe Democrats do it, I don't know who does it more or better. The point is, under this system you don't have much of an incentive to steal votes.
Why not? Isn't the incentive to steal votes the same anywhere?
It's a lot harder to steal votes in Sheridan, Michigan, than Detroit, Michigan. Dead people don't vote in Sheridan, Michigan. They do in Detroit.
A lot of Democrats will hear this as racial code -- that you want to disenfranchise urban voters, disproportionately minorities, in the inner cities, while giving more weight to the predominantly white populations of rural areas.
I want to disenfranchise dead people, yes. I believe their franchise ends when they die.
It has nothing to do with race. But I don't believe anybody in politics would tell you with straight face that there isn't some sort of problem with the way the Chicago machine works, going back to Dan Rostenkowski -- a white guy. It's not a race issue, it's about a machine.
You are a Republican operative, though. And it's Republican legislators who are pushing this in all the states where it's come up so far. You can claim this is about policy, but doesn't it really make it easier for Republicans to win presidential elections?
That could be a byproduct, depending on who drew the lines last and who's running -- a lot of different things. What it's really about is making sure that more people in more congressional districts get attention.
I think Democrats in Texas should be all over this. Democrats would probably win 15 electoral votes in Texas. I'm not saying this will always be comfortable for Republicans. I've had lots of Republicans argue with me about this, too. Why shouldn't Democrats in Arizona get their voices heard? Why shouldn't they matter too?
* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the Virginia bill had passed the House of Delegates. We regret the error.