Sabatos Crystal Ball


Changing the Electoral Vote?

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist October 11th, 2007


It would not be surprising if the most important single primary in 2008 takes place in California. But don’t look for it to be the presidential primary on Super-Duper Tuesday Feb. 5. Look instead to the state primary on June 3, up to now a low-profile event that could become fraught with significance if some California Republicans succeed in getting a highly controversial proposition on the ballot.

If successful, it would ensure the party’s nominee 20 or so electoral votes from California next fall, even if the GOP candidate loses the state for the fifth straight election. And if the 2008 election is as close as the last two been have been, that could be enough to keep the White House in Republican hands.

The political weapon of choice for the GOP is a plan that would distribute electoral votes to congressional district winners (one per district, plus two to the statewide winner of the popular vote) instead of the winner-take-all format that nearly every state currently favors. The plan was submitted as a ballot proposal to California election officials in July by a law firm that has represented the state Republican Party.

The district plan has been employed for years by two small states, Maine and Nebraska, with results consistently the same as winner-take-all. But if the plan were applied in California in 2004, the state’s electoral vote would have shifted dramatically–from 55-to-0 for Democrat John Kerry (a 10 percentage point winner in the state’s popular vote) to 33-to-22 Kerry, with Bush taking one electoral vote for each of the 22 congressional districts that he carried.

In one swoop, Bush would have won more electoral votes in California than he did in capturing the highly-priced battleground state of Ohio (worth 20 electors).

And in one instant, the nationwide electoral vote tally would have shifted in Bush’s favor from 286-to-251 (with one “faithless” Democratic elector in Minnesota) to a more commanding 317-to-221. The district plan would have transformed Bush’s narrow Electoral College victory–where Kerry could have won the election by taking Ohio–into a decisive triumph.

If applied nationally over the last generation, the district plan would have reversed the outcome of the 1960 election, electing Richard Nixon rather than John F. Kennedy, would have produced a 269-to-269 electoral vote tie between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, and would have consistently tightened the Electoral College outcomes in every presidential election from 1960 to the end of the 20th century–with the winning candidate losing electoral votes and the losing candidate gaining some each time.

However, in both 2000 and 2004, the district plan would have actually expanded George W. Bush’s electoral vote margins–from a razor-thin five in 2000 to 38, and from 35 in 2004 to 96.


The tally of electoral votes would have looked a lot different over the last half century if the current system of winner-take-all favored by nearly all the states would have been replaced by the congressional district plan that is being championed these days by some California Republicans. Under the district plan, one electoral vote would go to the highest vote-getter in each district and two electoral votes to the winning candidate statewide. If this system had been applied in 1960, Richard Nixon would have beaten John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976 would have tied in the Electoral College at 269 electoral votes. In general, the winning candidate in every presidential election from 1960 through the end of the century, would have fared worse under the district plan than the current system. However, in both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush would have won by a larger margin with the district plan.

Actual Tally District Plan Winners and Margin
Election Dems. Reps. Other Dems. Reps. Other Actual CD Plan
1960 303 219 15 252 280 5 Kennedy by 84 Nixon by 28
1964 486 52 466 72 Johnson by 434 Johnson by 394
1968 191 301 46 190 290 58 Nixon by 110 Nixon by 100
1972 17 520 1 62 476 Nixon by 503 Nixon by 414
1976 297 240 1 269 269 Carter by 57 Carter/Ford tie
1980 49 489 141 397 Reagan by 440 Reagan by 256
1984 13 525 69 469 Reagan by 512 Reagan by 400
1988 111 426 1 161 377 Bush by 315 Bush by 216
1992 370 168 323 215 Clinton by 202 Clinton by 108
1996 379 159 345 193 Clinton by 220 Clinton by 152
2000 266 271 1 250 288 G.W. Bush by 5 G.W. Bush by 38
2004 251 286 1 221 317 G.W. Bush by 35 G.W. Bush by 96

Note: The vote of “faithless” electors is included in the actual tally but not the district plan. The District of Columbia’s three electoral votes are included in computing results under the district plan.

Source: “Mapping the Political Landscape 2005,” Pew Research Center (Washington, D.C.).

Why? Take a look at 2004. Quite simply, Bush did better in winning electoral votes in “Blue America” than Kerry did in “Red America.” In addition to the 22 electoral votes that the district plan would have given the Republicans in California, Bush would also have picked up 10 electoral votes in Michigan plus nine electoral votes in each of three other states that he lost–Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania (according to a compilation of the 2004 presidential vote by Clark Bensen of the Northern Virginia-based Polidata).

On the other hand, the best that Kerry would have carved out of the Bush states would have been seven electoral votes from Florida and seven more from Texas. In no other state in the Republican column would Kerry have picked up more than five electoral votes under the district plan.

And why would Bush have made deeper inroads into the Democratic part of the map than Kerry made into the Republican portion? The most likely explanation is that in a number of states, the Democratic vote is largely concentrated in a handful of districts, basically urban and minority, which provide the party with huge majorities. Meanwhile, the Republican vote is frequently more spread out, enabling the GOP to win more districts than the Democrats but with smaller margins. Case in point, Michigan, where Kerry carried the state, but Bush swept 10 of the state’s 15 congressional districts.

Another case in point, Virginia, where Kerry took only two districts–the majority-black 3rd in the southeast part of the state and the liberal 8th in the suburbs across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.–but each with roughly two-thirds of the vote. Bush rolled to victory in the state’s other nine districts, but with smaller percentages than Kerry posted in the two districts that he won.

The Virginia results illustrate what could be a basic complaint about the district plan–that while each district winner would be awarded one electoral vote, districts are not nearly equal in turnout (or for that matter, population, as a decade unfolds). In the 2004 presidential election, the number of votes cast in Virginia districts ranged from a high of nearly 335,000 in the 7th District (which extends northwest from the Richmond area to the Blue Ridge Mountains) to a low of less than 240,000 in the 3rd District, a difference of almost 100,000 votes.

Another potential concern about the district plan is that it uses political creations that are designed to last only a decade, with shapes that frequently look like a bad jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes, the lines are drawn to further the interest of the state’s dominant party; often, the artful cartography is meant to protect House incumbents of both parties. As a result, there are not that many competitive districts around the country for the parties to legitimately compete for, either at the congressional level or at the presidential level if the district plan were widely adopted.

In 2004, the Old Dominion had just one battleground district, the Northern Virginia 11th represented by moderate Republican Tom Davis. His district is a classic slice of modern-day suburbia, straddling the Washington beltway and connecting the Democratic inner suburbs with the more Republican outer suburbs. Bush carried the 11th by less than 1 percentage point last time. Every other district in the state was won by Bush or Kerry by a margin of at least 10 points.


If the district plan had been employed in Virginia in 2004, George W. Bush’s 13-to-0 electoral vote sweep would have been reduced slightly to 11-to-2. However, Democrat John Kerry won his two districts with a higher share of the total vote than Bush carried any of his nine. The Virginia districts are ranked below on the basis of most competitive to least competitive in the 2004 presidential voting.

District Votes Winner (and percentage) Victory Margin House Member
Bush Districts (9)
VA 11 322,720 Bush (50 percent) 0.6 percent T. Davis (R)
VA 10 330,687 Bush (55 percent) 11 percent Wolf (R)
VA 5 283,625 Bush (56 percent) 13 percent Goode (R)
VA 4 293,566 Bush (57 percent) 14 percent Forbes (R)
VA 2 244,569 Bush (58 percent) 16 percent Drake (R)
VA 9 258,608 Bush (59 percent) 20 percent Boucher (D)
VA 1 313,443 Bush (60 percent) 21 percent J. Davis (R)*
VA 7 334,587 Bush (61 percent) 23 percent Cantor (R)
VA 6 280,577 Bush (63 percent) 27 percent Goodlatte (R)
Kerry Districts (2)
VA 8 296,605 Kerry (64 percent) 29 percent Moran (D)
VA 3 239,380 Kerry (66 percent) 33 percent Scott (D)
State Total
All 3,198,367 Bush (54 percent) 8 percent

Note: Jo Ann Davis (R-VA 1) passed away in early October. Her seat is currently vacant.

Source: Virginia State Board of Elections.

In California, the proportion of battleground districts in 2004 was about the same as in Virginia, roughly 10 percent of the total number. Only five of the 53 districts in California were decided in 2004 by a margin of less than 10 points. Nonetheless, the fight is already underway in the Golden State to pass the district plan.

Republican proponents argue that it is fairer than winner-take-all and call their measure the “Presidential Election Reform Act.”

Democratic critics claim that it is a partisan move designed to give the Republicans a big leg up in the 2008 presidential election, particularly since the district plan is not being implemented in conjunction with a nationwide overhaul of the electoral vote process.

The first test for supporters is to raise the millions of dollars needed to collect the hundreds of thousands of voter signatures required to get the district plan on to next June’s ballot. The initial filing deadline is around Thanksgiving.

If they succeed, initial soundings show that the vote could be close. The Field Poll in early August found the plan running ahead, 49-to-42 percent, even after respondents were made aware of its political implications. More than two-thirds of California Republicans favored the change, as well as roughly 40 percent of Democrats and independents. On the other hand, the rule of thumb among many California observers is that if a ballot proposition does not start with well over 50 percent support, its chances of success are highly problematic.

In short, if the district plan makes it onto the ballot, it is unclear at this point whether it would win or lose. And that uncertainty–with an Ohio-sized prize of electoral votes at stake–could end up making California’s vote next June the single most important of the 2008 primary season.


President Bush would have won by a perceptibly wider margin over Democrat John Kerry in 2004 if the electoral votes had been tallied on the basis of congressional districts (plus two electoral votes for winning a state). The electoral votes that each candidate would have gained under this plan in his opponent’s natural base–the Republican South, the Democratic Northeast–would have been virtually a wash. But Bush’s electoral vote tally would have made notable gains in many Midwestern and Western states that he lost. In California alone, Bush carried 22 congressional districts in 2004, which would have given him 22 electoral votes under the district plan that he did not receive under the current system.

Actual Tally District Plan
Bush Kerry Bush Kerry
South 168 0 137 31
Midwest 66 58 82 42
West 47 77 66 58
Northeast 5 117 32 90
“Red America” (Bush states) 286 0 235 51
“Blue America” (Kerry states) 0 252 82 170
TOTAL 286 252 317 221

Note: In this chart, the one “faithless” Democratic elector in Minnesota is credited to Kerry. The District of Columbia is included among the Kerry states and as part of the Northeast.

Source: “Presidential Election, 2004 Congressional Districts Preliminary Summary,” Polidata (Lake Ridge, Va.).