Led by disgruntled Republican state lawmakers still reeling from President Obama’s reelection in November, several key swing states are considering legislation to modify their electoral systems in a way that would help ensure Republican victories.
From Wisconsin to Virginia to Florida, GOP officials who control legislatures in states that President Obama carried in 2012 are considering changing state laws that give the winner of a state’s popular vote all of its Electoral College votes, too. Instead, Republican lawmakers want Electoral College votes to be divided proportionally, a move that many see as a crude attempt at election-rigging.
What the changes would mean, in effect, is that the system for electing a president would be broken down along a two-tiered proportional system. Not only would the national popular vote remain irrelevant in the selection of a president, but so too would statewide popular vote results. It would further diminish the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” by granting predetermined electoral votes to congressional districts whose voting preferences are already known — thus making elections a rather predictable exercise based more on the redistricting process than on an actual voting.
For example, in Virginia, which favored Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 51.2% to 47.3% in 2012, a bill being pushed by Republicans would award the state’s electoral votes by congressional districts that were redrawn under Republican control in 2010 and are so gerrymandered that Obama would have won just four votes to Romney’s nine.
FairVote executive director Rob Richie described the Virginia plan as “an incredibly unfair and indefensible proposal” and said he testified against a similar proposal in Pennsylvania, whose lawmakers briefly considered splitting its electoral votes for the 2012 election before backing down amid a public outcry against the maneuver.
The bill’s sponsor, however, Republican Sen. Charles Carrico, claimed he offered the measure on behalf of his Southwest Virginia constituents, who, he said, feel their votes are devalued because they’re outnumbered by voters in densely populated metropolitan areas. “They are very adamant about the fact they feel like they have no voice in presidential elections,” Carrico said.
What he left unsaid, of course, is the flip side of this argument: that by prescribing greater electoral weight to the votes of underpopulated rural regions, the votes of densely populated metropolitan areas are devalued. This devaluation would have a disproportionate impact on minority voters who tend to cluster in highly populated urban areas. As the American Prospect pointed out, “This makes land the key variable in elections—to win the majority of a state’s electoral votes, your voters will have to occupy the most geographic space.”
Richie noted that the effect of the change, in Virginia and in other states considering similar legislation, would be to massively water down Democratic votes concentrated into a few urban districts — many of them cast by African Americans — while boosting the impact of whiter and more rural districts.
Further, by dividing Virginia’s electoral votes into individual districts, the state would simply recreate the same problems that non-competitive states face on a national level. “Because the statewide vote would be absolutely meaningless, the only political activity would be in the small number of districts where political activity might change the outcome,” Richie pointed out.
Nevertheless, the idea is being embraced by national Republicans, who are desperately attempting to remain competitive considering the country’s changing demographics and the eroding significance of the party’s “angry white guy” political base.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus endorsed the idea earlier this month, and other Republican leaders are also lining up in support of it. “It’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at,” Priebus told the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, emphasizing that each state must decide for itself.
Democrats are growing increasingly vocal in their opposition to the potential change, pointing out that Obama won the popular vote with 65.9 million votes, or 51.1 percent, to Romney’s 60.9 million and won the Electoral College by a wide margin, 332-206 electoral votes. Despite this clear margin of support, however, it is doubtful that he would have been re-elected under the new system, if adopted by all the states considering the change.
According to one analysis, had all 50 states used the Republican plan, Mitt Romney would have defeated President Obama by 11 electoral votes — despite losing the popular vote by five million.
Virginia State Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) called the proposal one of Republicans’ many “sore-loser bills” related to elections and voting. “The bill is absolutely a partisan bill aimed at defying the will of the voters, giving Republican presidential candidates most of Virginia’s electoral votes, regardless of who carries the state,” he said.
John Marshall, publisher of the liberal blog TalkingPointsMemo.com, fretted that if enacted, the plan will “make it almost impossible for Democrats to win the presidency in 2016 and 2020, even if they match or exceed Barack Obama’s vote margin in 2012.”
Election law expert Richard Hasen, however, is reassuring Democrats that there is nothing to fear regarding these proposals, as they are unlikely to succeed. In an article titled “Democrats, Don’t Freak Out,” Hasen predicted that “the same self-interest that is leading Republicans to consider this move is also going to lead most of them to abandon it almost everywhere.”
Pointing out that a number of Democratic state legislatures, including California, have adopted the National Popular Vote plan, which would pledge all the participating states’ electors to the presidential candidate getting the most votes nationwide once enough other states adopt it, Hasen noted that the issue of “Electoral College reform” may be a can of worms that the Republicans don’t really want to open.
“Republicans have a lot to lose by going down this road,” wrote Hasen, concluding that “the Great Democratic Freak-out is unjustified.”
Only time will tell whether Hasen’s prediction is correct, but nevertheless, he may be missing the larger point regarding this debate, as well as the larger issue of the U.S. electoral system and the fundamental way that it is administered.
It’s worth pointing out that the only reason that Republicans are considering this change in the first place is because, following the 2010 census and redistricting process, they have already gerrymandered congressional districts in such a way to guarantee Republican victories. In southern states, this largely meant re-segregating politics by isolating Democrats to urban districts represented by African-American legislators while leaving Republicans to divvy up the rest of the state.
This rigged system of redistricting is how Republicans were able to keep control of the House of Representatives despite losing the popular vote nationwide by 1.4 million votes in 2012. Democratic House candidates earned 49.15 percent of the popular vote, while Republicans earned only 48.03 percent, meaning that the American people preferred a unified Democratic Congress over the divided Congress it actually got by more than a full percentage point. But thanks to partisan gerrymandering, Republicans retained a solid House majority for the 113th Congress.
An analysis by the Center for American Progress’s Ian Milhiser revealed just how firmly gerrymandering solidified Republican control of the House. “In order to take control of the House, Democrats would have needed to win the 2012 election by 7.25 percentage points,” Milhiser wrote. “That’s significantly more than the Republican margin of victory in the 2010 GOP wave election (6.6 percent), and only slightly less than the margin of victory in the 2006 Democratic wave election (7.9 percent).”
Essentially, the powers that be have set the threshold for electoral success so high that it’s become nearly insurmountable, and at best can be seen as an unfair barrier to competitive elections.
In short, this system has been gamed by partisan interests to virtually ensure certain electoral outcomes, a method of election-rigging that would be roundly condemned by the United States if practiced by countries such as Venezuela or Belarus. In an electoral system already dominated by two entrenched political parties that systematically prevent competition from smaller, independent parties such as the Greens and the Libertarians, political operatives are further undermining the democratic process by crippling the chances of their only real competitors.
These practices have drawn the attention of international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been monitoring elections in the United States since 2002.
The OSCE’s final report on the 2010 midterm elections noted that due to gerrymandering, “There is a broad perception that a significant number of congressional districts are non-competitive as the outcome of the election could be predicted with a high degree of probability. In these mid-term elections, one senator and 27 candidates for members of the House were elected unopposed.”
The OSCE reiterated its recommendation contained in the final report on the 2006 midterm elections: “With a view to ensuring genuine electoral competition in congressional districts, consideration could be given to introducing procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on criteria other than voters’ voting histories and perceived future voting intentions.”
Needless to say, this recommendation from the OSCE — of which the U.S. is one of 57 participating states that has made certain commitments to holding democratic elections — has remained unheeded by policymakers in the United States. Indeed, as the current proposals make clear, the election-rigging activities are only intensifying as the Republican Party realizes that its electoral relevance is diminishing in the face of sweeping demographic changes across the country.
The underlying problem, of course, is that the United States uses a decentralized system of election administration in which partisan elected officials on the national, state and local levels are given free reign to draw district boundaries, set the electoral rules, and limit competition from other parties. All of these practices fly in the face of international standards for free and fair elections.
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