The Republican Electoral College Contradiction

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A few months after losing the White House, Republicans across the country have had a revelation: The Electoral College could use some improvements. The problem is that they have contradictory proposals for how to fix it—and contradictory arguments for why those proposals would help Americans pick their president. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire, GOP lawmakers want to award Electoral College votes by congressional district, just like Nebraska and Maine currently do. But in Nebraska, Republicans want to do the opposite, and return to the same winner-takes-all method used by, well, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, and almost every other state.

These Republicans do agree on one thing, however: They insist that their proposals have nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election.

“I think people would just feel better knowing that their vote went to the candidate that they chose in their area,” Gary Tauchen, a GOP state legislator in Wisconsin, told me recently. Tauchen is 67 and retiring next year, and the measure he’s introduced, which would split Wisconsin’s electoral votes by congressional district, could be a capstone to a 16-year career in the legislature. Under his bill, even if deep-blue Milwaukee and Madison pushed the state into the Democratic column—as they have in eight of the past nine presidential elections—shutting out Republicans entirely would be virtually impossible. Tauchen said he would have introduced his bill even if Trump had won Wisconsin last year. Why, then, didn’t he push it after 2016, when Trump narrowly carried the state? “The timing wasn’t right, I don’t think,” he said. “This just seemed more appropriate for right now.”

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In New Hampshire, Bill Gannon, a Republican state senator, has proposed similar legislation. He told me he got the idea from his son, a college student who had read about how Maine divvies up its electoral votes. Republicans control New Hampshire’s governorship and legislature, and if they pass Gannon’s bill, the GOP could wind up with an extra electoral vote in 2024 even if Democrats carry the state again. Around the time Gannon offered up his proposal, a prominent Michigan Republican suggested that his state do the same.

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, a 24-year-old Yale graduate named Julie Slama wants her state to go in the other direction. A state senator first appointed by Governor Pete Ricketts in 2018, Slama has introduced a bill that would award all of Nebraska’s electors to the winner of the statewide vote. The last Democrat to carry the reliably red state was Lyndon B. Johnson. Trump won the statewide vote last year by nearly 20 points. But Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, walked away with one of Nebraska’s five electors by winning a district that comprises Omaha and its suburbs. Had Biden won about 44,000 fewer total votes across Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona, that single electoral vote in Nebraska would have decided the election.

Yet when I raised this with Slama, she never mentioned the advantage her party would gain. Instead, she drew her argument from the Constitution. “The Founders and the Framers made it very clear that states, not segments of states, were intended to determine the president,” Slama told me, “and we really shouldn’t have presidential elections determined by lines drawn by politicians.”

Taken together, the changes these legislators are seeking would likely ensure that the next Republican presidential nominee wins at least a few more electoral votes in the race to 270. But the proposals could also backfire. All of the states trying to imitate Nebraska are battlegrounds; Trump won Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016, and he came within 3,000 votes of carrying New Hampshire that year. All of them could be competitive in 2024. “At the end of the day, I think that they might live to regret those things,” warns Ryan Hamilton, the executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

The desired result of the proposals, however, is clear: These bills are aimed at making it harder for Democrats to win. At this point, they are all long shots; none of the proposals currently has the votes to pass. But Democrats are taking them seriously, seeing the attempts to tweak the Electoral College system as linked to the GOP’s much more widely publicized efforts to suppress voter turnout.

If Republicans are trying to tinker with the Electoral College to boost their chances, many Democrats want to go much further to strengthen theirs. Some have long wanted to abolish the institution altogether. Others are pushing legislation that would effectively neutralize the Electoral College by creating a multistate compact to elect as president the winner of the national popular vote, an idea that arose in response to the disputed 2000 election of George W. Bush. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia—all controlled by Democrats—have endorsed the measure over the years, but few supporters believe that it will win over enough states to succeed anytime soon.

Unlike in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire, the push to change Nebraska’s system isn’t new—Republicans have been trying to abolish the state’s Electoral College split almost from the moment it was enacted. Nebraska has the nation’s only unicameral, nonpartisan legislature, which requires legislation to muster a supermajority to pass. A Democratic state senator succeeded in winning bipartisan support to implement the Electoral College change in 1991, and Nebraska’s Democratic governor at the time signed it into law. Hamilton, the state GOP executive director, concedes that his party’s desire to return to the winner-takes-all system plays to its advantage, but he has a tough time accounting for the fact that Republicans in other states are moving in the opposite direction. When I asked him about this contradiction, he paused for a few seconds. “I’m trying to answer judiciously,” he told me. “I respect what they’re trying to do.”

Nebraska Republicans likely would have succeeded already if it were not for Ernie Chambers. A Democratic 46-year veteran of the legislature from Omaha, Chambers mounted a days-long filibuster in 2016 to preserve the current system. Republicans at one point had the votes they needed to adopt the winner-takes-all method, but a couple of members peeled off after Chambers commandeered the floor and jeopardized the passage of other bills before the legislative session expired. Chambers, who is Black and has long described himself as a “defender of the downtrodden,” argues that the change would silence the voices of nonwhite citizens in Omaha, Nebraska’s biggest city. “There is very little impact that the people who are not white and Republican in Nebraska can have,” he told me. “But that doesn’t mean people will not do with the  little they have to work with.”

Chambers, 83, is now out of office, having been forced to leave last year for the second time in his career because of term limits. When I spoke with him recently, he said he didn’t know if the defenders of Nebraska’s unusual approach would prevail again. But he was unsentimental. “Politics is a dirty, backstabbing, double-crossing racket,” Chambers said. “If you’ve got the numbers, you want winner-take-all. If you don’t have the numbers, you want to at least have a little bit of an opportunity for your voice to be heard.”

“There’s nothing mystical about it, nothing philosophical about it,” Chambers said about the fight over the Electoral College, both in Nebraska and elsewhere. “It’s politics, pure and simple.”