Could a change in the way states allocate their votes in the Electoral College have changed the outcome of the 2012 presidential election? The answer to that question is generating outrage among Democrats over schemes that are currently under consideration in Virginia and some other states. That’s because had every state in the union discarded the winner-take-all rule currently used in all but two and instead employed one in which each Congressional district would be an individual contest, Mitt Romney might have earned a slim victory despite losing the popular vote.
Nebraska and Maine currently divide their votes in this manner giving both major parties a chance to win individual districts. That is each state’s prerogative since there is nothing in the Constitution saying that the winner-take-all rule is sacred. But in 2012, when President Obama won a narrow majority in the popular vote but a decisive victory in the Electoral College, allowing such splits would have created an anomalous outcome since the president’s win was predicated on his sweep of virtually every closely-fought battleground state in which he ran up big vote totals in urban areas while losing rural counties. That’s leading Democrats to call the plan to change the system in Virginia, which Obama won by a razor-thin margin, a “sore loser” scheme that is a GOP effort to subvert democracy.
Even though Republicans in some states have been talking about this issue for years, coming on the heels of their 2012 loss, it’s hard to argue that the sore loser tag doesn’t apply. Indeed, though their plan has its virtues, the idea of changing the rules in order to skew the results a bit more in their favor instead of working on issues and producing candidates that will win on their own merits sounds like exactly the sort of foolish thing Republicans ought to be avoiding as they ponder how to do better in 2016. Nevertheless, though the plan creates some bad optics for the GOP, even its Democratic critics should admit that it is neither crazy nor essentially undemocratic.
The Electoral College already gives an unfair advantage to small states that are always overestimated in Congress since each gets at least one member of the House and two in the Senate (the number of Electoral College votes each state gets is determined by their total of members in the House and Senate). But though the College rarely produces a result at variance with the national popular vote (as it did in 1876 and more recently in the Bush-Gore fiasco in 2000) it does tend to distort most results as it did again in 2012 when it gave Obama a much bigger win than his share of the popular vote would have dictated (332-206 in the College while only 51-47 in the popular). In that sense, opposition to the GOP scheme exposes many Democrats to the charge of hypocrisy since they spent most of the last year carrying on about any possible threat to the one-person, one-vote rule.
Since all Congressional districts are supposed to have approximately the same populations the new system if applied nationwide ought to allow the Electoral College to more closely mirror the popular vote around the country.
Changing the system to allow the votes of more Americans to count in the Electoral College is a move toward more democracy not less. It would also force the parties to abandon a practice of active campaigning only in swing states and force them to fight and to spend money everywhere. That means Democrats would be encouraged to compete in red states in the South and Middle West while Republicans would no longer ignore large blue states like New York and California.
But when applied to some individual states, there’s no question that it would help the GOP. President Obama’s ability to run the table in swing states was the function of his big wins in cities while losing rural districts. Romney won seven of the 11 Congressional Districts in Virginia and 11 of the 16 districts in Ohio while both states and the election.
In our current political environment in which Democrats have a stranglehold on large states such as California, New York and Illinois, the winner-take-all rule gives them a big advantage. It is true that the same change would give them a share of a large red state like Texas that they wouldn’t currently get but they would certainly be the losers in the exchange.
Assuming that elections in the future will be dictated by the politics of our present day is always a mistake. So it would be a mistake for either party to decide its position on the future of the Electoral College based on past votes. In particular, Republicans might want to think about the possible perils of changing the system before 2016 when it is entirely possible that they will be able to nominate a candidate who might win the swing states that Romney lost. Democrats may assume that demography will dictate that they will never again lose states like Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio but the GOP should think twice about taking votes that a candidate like Marco Rubio or Chris Christie might win and giving them to the Democrats.
In principle, there is nothing undemocratic about allocating Electoral College votes by district rather than by states. And Democrats who never complained about Nebraska or Maine having such a system are in no position to claim it is wrong for Virginia to adopt it. But since it might have prevented Obama’s re-election in a way that most Americans would have thought unfair, Republicans should not allow themselves to be seen as working to game the system in such a way as to thwart the will of the majority. If Republicans want to eliminate the unfairness baked into the Electoral College system, they can advocate scrapping it altogether. Anything short of that is not going to do them or the country a bit of good in the long run.