How to Win States and Disenfranchise People: The GOP's Electoral-Vote Plan

A proposed change would radically rework the way presidential voting works and give rural districts disproportionate new clout.

Randall Hill/Reuters

Let's play a game. Let's say, hypothetically, that your party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Even worse, long-term demographic trends suggest that your chances are only going to get worse. What do you do?

One option might be to revamp your policy proposals, improve the technical operational side of your party, and think about ways to improve your candidate pool.

Or you could try to find ways to make sure fewer people's votes matter.

That's exactly the dilemma facing the Republican Party. And there are some folks who are taking the first path. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has been outspoken about the GOP's need to do better outreach to minorities. Strategists like Patrick Ruffini want to close the technology gap with Democrats.

But another faction, backed by RNC Chair Reince Priebus, is taking the second route. The idea is to get state legislatures to change the way they allocate electoral votes. Instead of a winner-take-all scheme, which most states use, they want to institute a system where votes could be split between candidates. Now, on face, that might not seem so bad. It would mean that very Republican areas in very Democratic states -- think Orange County, California -- and very Democratic areas in Republican states -- think Austin, Texas -- wouldn't be essentially throwing their presidential votes away.

Certainly, there are longstanding critiques of the Electoral College. Recently they've mostly come from the left. The 2000 election, in which Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, was a galvanizing moment. And there are plans to try to rectify the oddness of the Electoral College. For example, the National Popular Vote plan is a push to get states to sign on to a scheme in which they'd award all their electors to the winner of the most votes nationwide. The plan would only take effect once states representing at least half of the electoral votes have joined, guaranteeing its effectiveness.

So this GOP plan is a smart move, driven by politics but with a result that would better reflect the will of the majority, right? Not quite. Here's the twist: The proposal would award electoral votes based on who wins Congressional districts. (That's already how Maine and Nebraska work, but the two states only account for nine of the 538 total electoral votes.)

From a Republican perspective, this is genius, but it's evil genius. It would allow the party to gain electoral votes in swing states and near swing states like Ohio, Colorado, and Michigan that went for Obama in the last two elections but have large Republican constituencies. But you may also recall that the GOP maintained its majority in the House in November but actually won fewer votes than Democrats did in congressional elections overall. This is because the GOP has been extremely effective at gerrymandering House districts. One reason the 2010 election mattered so much is that the Tea Party wave handed control of redistricting after the 2010 Census to Republican-led legislatures in many states. And they didn't waste the opportunity. Now the lines won't be redrawn again until after the next census, in 2020. For more on this, read Robert Draper's story from the October issue of The Atlantic.

At The Washington Post, Aaron Blake shows how destabilizing these vote-allocation proposals could be to the status quo.

In fact, if every state awarded its electoral votes by congressional district, it's likely that Mitt Romney would have won the 2012 presidential election despite losing the popular vote by nearly four percentage points. (According to Fix projections and data from Daily Kos Elections, Romney won at least 227 congressional districts and 24 states, giving him 275 electoral votes -- more than the 270 he needed.)

In addition, if just the five states mentioned above changed their systems, Obama's 126-electoral-vote win would have shrunk to a 34-vote win -- close enough where a different result in Florida (which Obama won by less than one point) would have tipped the 2012 race in Romney's favor.

And there are even more draconian ideas elsewhere. Dave Weigel, one of the few journalists who's been tracking this movement as it slowly bubbles up nationwide, notes that while most versions of this bill assign the two electors who correspond to a state's senators to the winner of the state's popular vote, the bill that Virginia Republicans have proposed would award them to the candidate who won the most congressional districts. Although the Old Dominion was until recently a comfortably red state, Obama won it in 2008 and again in 2012. Weigel:

Mitt Romney won the 1st (53%), 4th (50%), 5th (53%), 6th (59%), 7th (57%), 9th (63%), and 10th (50%) districts. Barack Obama won the four remaining districts -- the 2nd (50%), 3rd (79%), 8th (68%), and 11th (62%). Had the Carrico plan been in place in 2012, Mitt Romney would have won nine of Virginia's electoral votes, and Barack Obama would have won four -- even though Obama won the popular vote of the state by nearly 150,000 ballots, and four percentage points.
So clearly this isn't a plan that would solve the problem of an undemocratic Electoral College. But it is a plan that would forestall Republican demographic doom. Now, whether instituting these laws would be politically viable is a different question. Even if a few states adopted it, it could change the political landscape. 

And moreover, the plan would disenfranchise voters. Which ones? Mostly the minority ones in cities who helped Obama win this year. Most urban districts are going to vote Democratic, and most rural ones will go Republican. But if votes are quarantined in a single Congressional district, it doesn't matter if the turnout in a city is 50 percent, 70 percent, or 100 percent; there's only one electoral vote on the table, plus the two at-large electoral votes. This takes almost all the venom out of the formidable Democratic get-out-the-vote operation.

There's a certain nihilism here. One of the major storylines of the 2012 election was voter-ID laws and voting hours. While ostensibly formulated to stop voter fraud, there wasn't much voter fraud to stop, and the changed hours tended to affect mostly poorer and urban (and therefore Democratic) voters. In some cases, Republican officials put the changes in starkly honest ways. A Pennsylvania legislator said a voter-ID law would help Mitt Romney win the state (he was wrong), while an Ohio official said voting hours shouldn't be shaped to accommodate the "urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine." For a variety of reasons, however, these pushes didn't work: courts struck down some laws, and voters were willing to wait in long lines to cast their ballots.

But hey, if disenfranchisement didn't work once, just try it again, right? It's not like the GOP's standing with minority and urban voters can get much worse.