Sabato's Crystal Ball

Republican Electoral College Plan Would Undermine Democracy

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist January 24th, 2013

Republicans are struggling to right their ship after the defeat of 2012. The unfavorable demographic trends for the GOP that we describe in our new book, Barack Obama and the New America, have sunk in, and the party knows it must do something. We have solicited ideas ourselves, believing that it is vital for America to have vigorous party competition. You will see some of those ideas, offered by our readers and Twitter colleagues, here. But nestled among the constructive ideas is a truly rotten one, the proposal to fix and game the Electoral College to give a sizable additional advantage to the Republican nominee for president.

We have asked Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, to examine the proposal and outline its likely effects. As we suspected, it would permit a GOP nominee to capture the White House even while losing the popular vote by many millions. This is not a relatively small Electoral College “misfire” on the order of 1888 or 2000. Instead, it is a corrupt and cynical maneuver to frustrate popular will and put a heavy thumb — the whole hand, in fact — on the scale for future Republican candidates. We do not play presidential politics with a golf handicap awarded to the weaker side.

Republicans face a choice that can best be characterized by personalizing it. A healthy, optimistic party is Reaganesque, convinced that it can win the future by embracing it, and by making a positive case for its philosophy and candidates to all Americans. A party in decline is Nixonian and fears the future; it sees enemies everywhere, feels overwhelmed by electoral trends, and thinks it can win only by cheating, by subverting the system and stacking the deck in its favor. Whose presidency was more successful, Reagan’s or Nixon’s? Which man made the Republican brand more appealing?

— Larry J. Sabato, for the editors of The Crystal Ball

After losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and seeing Barack Obama sweep to a surprisingly easy reelection victory in 2012, Republican leaders and strategists are understandably worried about their party’s prospects in future presidential contests. There is no doubt that the GOP faces major challenges as a result of the nation’s shifting demographics and a growing Democratic advantage in the Electoral College.

Democratic presidential candidates have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia with a total of 242 electoral votes in all four elections since 2000, and another three states with 15 electoral votes in three of those elections. In addition, three of the five states that have voted twice for each party since 2000 — Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, with a total of 28 electoral votes — clearly appear to be trending Democratic. That gives Democrats a base of 24 states plus the District of Columbia in which they have the advantage going into the next presidential election. Those states have 285 electoral votes — 15 votes more than needed to win the presidency.

Of course there is no guarantee that Democrats will carry all of these states in 2016. That will depend on the condition of the U.S. economy and the mood of the country at that time as well as whom the parties nominate to succeed Barack Obama. But recent trends certainly look ominous for the GOP.

As the electorate continues to become less white and more liberal in its outlook on social issues, Republicans have two choices about how to improve their party’s prospects in future presidential elections. One approach would be to adopt more moderate positions on issues such as immigration, abortion, gay rights and health care in order to make their party more appealing to young people, women and nonwhites. But that strategy would risk alienating a large portion of the GOP’s current base, especially those aligned with the Tea Party movement. So rather than adopting that risky strategy, some Republican leaders appear to be opting for a different approach — changing the electoral rules to make it easier for a Republican candidate to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

Several Republican governors and state legislative leaders in key battleground states have recently expressed support for a plan to change the method of awarding their state’s electoral votes from the current winner-take-all system to one in which one vote would be awarded to the winner of each congressional district in the state and two votes would be awarded to the statewide winner. In the aftermath of the GOP’s 2012 defeat, this plan appears to be gaining momentum and was recently endorsed by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. On Wednesday, a bill to apportion electors by congressional district advanced through a subcommittee in the Virginia Senate.

The congressional district plan appears reasonable at first glance. After all, why give all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins statewide no matter how narrow that candidate’s margin? Awarding electoral votes by congressional district would seem to provide a fairer and more balanced alternative to the winner-take-all system. But there is a serious problem with this approach. Despite a superficial appearance of fairness, the congressional district plan would be profoundly undemocratic — skewing the results in favor of the party drawing the congressional district lines in a state and greatly increasing the chances of an Electoral College misfire (a victory by the candidate losing the national popular vote).

The congressional district system, if adopted for the entire nation, would give Republicans a major advantage in presidential elections. That’s because Republicans controlled the redistricting process after the 2010 census in far more states than Democrats as a result of the GOP’s big gains in the 2010 midterm elections. By drawing congressional districts that favored the GOP, Republican state legislatures and governors gave their party a big edge in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. The result was that in 2012, even though Democratic candidates outpolled Republican candidates by more than a million votes across the nation, Republicans kept control of the House by a margin of 234 seats to 201 seats.

The results of GOP gerrymandering were also clearly evident in the presidential election. Across the nation, Obama defeated Mitt Romney by almost four percentage points and close to five million votes. However, based on the results that are currently available we can estimate that Romney carried 228 House districts to only 207 for Obama. So despite Obama’s comfortable margin in the national popular vote, a system that awarded one electoral vote for each House district plus two votes for the statewide winner would have resulted in a Romney victory by 276 electoral votes to 262 electoral votes.

Of course, there is no chance that the congressional district system will be adopted for the entire country between now and 2016. There is no interest in changing the method of awarding electoral votes in states currently controlled by Democrats or in states currently controlled by Republicans that were carried by Romney in 2012. Adopting the congressional district system in those Republican states would probably help the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. But there is a chance that this system could be adopted by six battleground states that were carried by Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but where Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the legislature: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

If these six battleground states were to adopt the congressional district method of awarding electoral votes, it would not guarantee a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election but it would make such a victory much more likely. That’s because the congressional district lines in these states were gerrymandered by Republican legislatures following the 2010 census to give their party a huge advantage. As a result, even though Obama carried all six states in 2012, it appears that Romney carried 61 House districts in these states to only 33 for Obama. Romney appears to have carried 16 of 27 House districts in Florida, 9 of 14 House districts in Michigan, 12 of 16 House districts in Ohio, 12 of 18 House districts in Pennsylvania, 7 of 11 House districts in Virginia and 5 of 8 House districts in Wisconsin.

If the congressional district system had been used in these six states in 2012, instead of Obama winning all of their 106 electoral votes, it appears that Romney would have won 61 electoral votes to only 45 for Obama. As a result, Obama’s margin in the national electoral vote would have been reduced from 332-206 to only 271-267.

The Electoral College system for choosing the president is an antiquated relic. It was adopted by the framers of the Constitution in order to limit the influence of ordinary people on the selection of the president by having state legislatures choose the electors. But the Electoral College today doesn’t work anything like the way the framers intended it to work. The state legislatures long ago gave the power to choose the electors to the voters in their states and the voters now choose between slates of electors prepared by the political parties.

The current method of allocating electoral votes, based on a winner-take-all rule in every state except Maine and Nebraska, actually serves to closely approximate the ideal method of choosing the president in a democracy: direct popular election. Under the current system, there is a very close relationship between the outcome of the popular vote and the outcome of the electoral vote. Only once since 1888 has a president won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. That happened in 2000, but a very strong case can be made that the 2000 “misfire” was less a result of the Electoral College itself than of serious flaws in the voting process in Florida.

If we can’t have direct popular election of the president — the method that would clearly be the most democratic and the method that polls have consistently found that the large majority of Americans favor — then the next best method of choosing the president is probably the current one of awarding electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. The current system appears to minimize the chances of an electoral vote misfire in which the winner of the popular vote loses the electoral vote. In contrast, the congressional district method would greatly increase the chances of such a misfire.

Under current circumstances, the congressional district system could well result in a Republican victory even if the Democratic candidate were to win the popular vote by a substantial margin. Such a situation would undoubtedly lead to widespread questioning of the legitimacy of the election and, potentially, a public backlash against the victorious Republican candidate and the GOP itself. Before engaging in a cynical attempt to rig the electoral system, Republican leaders and strategists should consider the potential harm that their actions could do to our democratic form of government and to their own party.