Republicans are flirting with changing the basic American principle of "one man, one vote," into something a little more flexible — something like "one man, one to three votes." While leaders at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting are making speeches about reaching new voters, state lawmakers and lobbyists are working to ensure that their old voters — white, rural Americans — count more than everyone else. Starting in swing states that voted for President Obama but have Republican legislatures, they're floating apportioning electoral college votes by congressional district, instead of the winner-takes-all system that most states (except for Maine and Nebraska) currently use. There have been some murmurings about rolling this concept out nationwide — which would at least give it the chintziest veneer of democratic legitimacy — but so the only states proponents have targeted are the ones where Obama won in 2012 in a rather bald attempt to turn a 3.9 percent popular vote loss (that is he received 4.97 million more votes than Romney) into a victory. But even if this scheme was applied in all 50 states, it would only reinforce an imbalance that already exists in America's political system: rural whites are overrepresented in Congress because of gerrymandering and geography. That is why even though House Democratic candidates received a million more votes than House Republicans in the 2012 elections, Republicans retained a majority. This scheme would be worse: There is no way to extract this plan from past attempts to suppress the minority vote. It's a plan for the minority to steal elections.
In November, Obama won all 13 of Virginia's electoral votes by beating Romney by a 3.8 percent vote margin. But the proposal supported by many Republicans in Virginia is not to award electoral votes proportionally so that the loser loses a little less badly, like say giving Obama 7 electoral votes and Romney 6. Based on their scheme, the result actually turns the loser into the winner: going by congressional Romney would have won 9 electoral votes, and Obama would have won 4, all thanks to the gerrymandering that packs Democrats into a handful of districts. (State legislatures draw Congressional districts every ten years, and the party in power — in Virginia's case, Republicans — typically comes up with a districting plan that gives them the most seats.) Do the math and that means an Obama vote would only count as three-fifths of a vote — a creepy historical coincidence, given that slaves counted as three-fifths of people in the Constitution's original three-fifths compromise.
The plan would essentially take the unfairness of gerrymandering to the presidential level, and it's impossible to make the electoral vote scheme more fair, in the one-man-one-vote sense. That's because even if we came up with a way to do away with gerrymandering of state legislatures, Democrats would still be underrepresented in the House. Democratic voters are likely pack themselves into a tiny geographic space. Democrats win their districts by huge majorities, and would win more seats if some of those voters moved to more competitive districts. Here is a great map showing what the U.S. looks like by population and party.
That's not to say changing the rules didn't appeal to Democrats when they were presidential losers. When Virginia was a solid red state just a few presidential elections ago, several Democratic legislators introduced bills to apportion the state's electoral votes by congressional district, Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin points out. "I’m age 72 so I spent a lot of years in the wilderness and the last time the state had gone Democratic [before 2008] was following the assassination of John F. Kennedy," state delegate Vivan Watts told TPM. "I thought back in those days about how we were just totally ignored... I certainly don’t want the situation this bill would represent in which the Congressional vote would run counter to the popular vote."
The plan is so radical Republicans are starting to distance themselves from it. In Virginia, where the plan had the made the most progress, the proposal looked dead Friday afternoon, because two Republican state senators will oppose it, the Associated Press's Bob Lewis reports. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said on MSNBC Friday, "I don't think there's any sort of national movement... It's wrong to say there's a big Republican conspiracy to try to change this."
But as The Atlantic's Molly Ball reports, there actually is a Republican plan to take the scheme national. GOP strategist Jordan Gehrke and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell are working to raise money to lobby for the change across the country. Gehrke told The Atlantic the plan would just make the vote more fair — to Republicans and Democrats! "I think Democrats in Texas should be all over this. Democrats would probably win 15 electoral votes in Texas," Gehrke said. People who don't live in swing states are ignored, and even people in less populous parts of swing states are ignored, he said, pointing to southeast Ohio.
That sounds democratic, small D, and in fact, it's borrowing rhetoric from people who have been trying to abolish the electoral college, which was designed to be a little anti-democratic by the Founders, for years by electing the president by the national popular vote. Over the last decade, eight states and D.C. have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact which pledges their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once enough states ratify the agreement so that they will award a majority of electoral votes. So far, those eight states — primarily heavily Democratic ones like California, New York and Hawaii — constitue 132 electoral votes, which is 128 shy of the 270 electoral college majority.
But that's not the only reason Gehrke is wrong. Somehow forgetting the Mitt Romney photo ops with miners in southeast Ohio, he says rural voters are being ignored:
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.
Let's look at the statistics: only 16 percent of Americans live in rural areas. If this tiny minority has different goals than the rest of the country, they are not underrepresented in American government. Wyoming's 568,000 people and California's 37.7 million people have the same representation in the Senate. The outsized influence of rural voters affects all kinds of issues — look at how much attention we're paying to the musings on gun control of Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and Max Baucus, who represent 1.6 million people combined. That's a little less than the number of people who live in the Nashville metro area, and way less than the 8 million people who elected gun control activist New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Segregationist Democrats held onto power before the Civil Rights Act by enacting Jim Crow laws to keep minorities from voting, and recent Republicans have used voter I.D. laws to depress the minority vote in places where some people are still mad about the Civil Rights Act. This is another way to limit the minority vote, though this time, suburban professionals are pulled into the scheme. The one upside to the proposed rule changes, which Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus encouraged, is that they could spark activism to bring about a voting system that would actually be more fair: choosing a president by a national popular vote.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.