In recent weeks, I have been tracking an alarming story that now appears to be moving from the realm of conjecture to reality. Today, National Journal ran an article on how Republicans are orchestrating a scheme to steal the next presidential election if they can’t win it legitimately. Their plan: to split the electoral votes in three states they have been unable to win in the last quarter-century, in order to help elect their presidential candidate in 2016 regardless of whether he actually wins the most votes.
First, a little background is necessary. As most people who closely follow politics understand, the president of the United States is not elected by the direct votes of the voters. Instead, every state is allocated a certain number of “electors,” roughly in proportion to their share of the nation’s population, chosen by the popular vote of each state. In 48 of the 50 states, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes wins all the electoral votes in that state. For example, Barack Obama won approximately 63 percent of the vote in New York, and will therefore receive 29 electoral votes from that state, while Mitt Romney will receive none; conversely, in Texas, where Romney won about 58 percent of the vote, Romney will get 38 electoral votes, and Obama will receive zero. In the remaining two states, Maine and Nebraska, the electors are allocated so that the statewide winner gets two electoral votes, and the winner in each Congressional district gets one. The result, in all but four of the 48 elections that have been held since the popular vote has been officially tracked and recorded, is that the candidate with the most votes has won the presidency.
The Constitution of the United States provides that each state may choose its electors in any manner it sees fit, which is why Maine and Nebraska can allocate their electoral votes as they do, while the other states allocate them so that the winner of the state gets all the electoral votes.
Now, according to National Journal, Republican legislators who currently control the legislatures and governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, are preparing to introduce legislation in 2013 that would award Republicans most of their states’ electoral votes, even while the Republican candidate is losing each state badly. No Republican presidential candidate has won Michigan or Pennsylvania since 1988, or Wisconsin since 1984, but had this proposal been in place this year, Romney would have captured a substantial majority of the electoral votes in each state despite losing them all by at least 5 percent of the total votes cast (and by just under 10 percent in Michigan). There is also discussion of doing enacting the same scheme in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, all of which Obama won in each of the last two elections. However, the possibility that the GOP may actually win any or all of these states may make this less likely than it is in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, where Republicans haven’t won the presidential vote in a generation.
The reason Republicans are singling out these six states is very simple: aside from West Virginia, which has a Democratic governor and legislature but voted for Romney, these are the only six states in America that voted for a presidential candidate of one party, but in which the governorships and legislatures are controlled by the other party. They understand that if they go forward with their plans, the net result will be a large pickup of electoral votes by Republicans. The Democrats cannot respond by changing the rules in states that typically vote Republican, because all the states that typically go Republican in presidential elections (except West Virginia) are also controlled by Republicans at the state capital. So while the six aforementioned states would give a majority of their electors to Republicans, even as Republicans are losing those states, the so-called “red states” would continue to give ALL of their electors to Republicans.
Let’s take a look at what would have happened in 2012 if the Republican plan had been in place in all six states. It’s actually pretty simple: Barack Obama, despite outpolling Mitt Romney by nearly 5 million votes nationally (approximately 66 million to 61 million), probably would have lost the White House. In the six states where Republicans are considering changing the rules, Obama won 106 electoral votes to Romney’s zero. Under the newly proposed rules, despite winning the most votes in all six of those states, Obama would have lost the majority of the all-important electoral votes in each one of those states. Under the proposed GOP scheme, Romney would have won potentially as many as 70 of the 106 electoral votes in those states; he came up 64 electoral votes short of winning the White House. The math—and the Republican intention—is simple: to gain (and keep) power regardless of whether they actually win elections or not.
It should now be abundantly clear to anyone who can count that the Republicans do not care what the voters want. They have lost the popular presidential vote in five of the last six elections, and in four of those five elections, they have lost by large margins: four million votes or more. Rather than changing their policies and attempting to appeal to more voters, the Republicans instead are attempting to rig the system so that they can win regardless of who actually gets more votes.
The worst part of all of this is that there is nothing to stop them. The Constitution is very clear: states can allocate their electors as they wish. The GOP controls the legislatures and governorships in each of these states. If the Republicans introduce this legislation in any or all of these states, it will become law, and they will almost certainly win the presidency in 2016, regardless of how badly they might actually lose the election.
There is only one way to prevent this obscene, absurd tragedy from occurring, and it is admittedly a long shot: Democrats have to win the governorship and both chambers of the legislature in each one of these states in 2014. Only then can they overturn any of these laws that may be enacted over the next year or two. But the Republicans who control these states have drawn the district lines in such a way that it is almost impossible for Democrats to win the legislatures in these states. It is a heavy lift, because what is happening here is a complicated scheme that most voters will not understand. But Democrats are going to have to try, because if this is the way it’s going to be, it will be nearly impossible for them to win the White House ever again, even if they consistently win the most votes.
The most important political objective for the Democratic party in the next two years is to take control of the governorships and legislatures in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Wisconsin. Every other political objective pales in comparison. Every dollar, every staffer, every volunteer that the Democratic Party can spare must be devoted to this purpose. Failure in this effort will allow the Republicans to stack the deck so that they will control the presidency no matter how the voters actually vote.
This isn’t about what is right or wrong. It’s about power. The Republicans want power and will do whatever they must do to get it and keep it, even if that means stacking the deck and rendering the actual votes of the people completely meaningless. Democrats only have one chance to stop them: everything depends on 2014, and that includes democracy itself.