Various news sources over the past few days provide indications that Republican schemes to rig the electoral vote in future elections may have hit some roadblocks in two key states.
In Florida, reports indicate that GOP House Speaker Will Weatherford opposes the change from a winner-take-all system to a system that would award electors based on congressional districts. Although Republicans dominate the Florida legislature (76-44 in the House and 26-14 in the Senate), chances are zero that any bill will move forward in the House without the Speaker’s blessing.
In Virginia, numerous reports indicate that at least two Republican state senators and GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell oppose such a change. With the State Senate evenly divided, 20-20, any Republican defections would likely kill the proposed legislation.
Now, consider this for a minute. Why do you think it is, in states like Florida and Virginia, that the Republicans appear to be backing down on a scheme that would guarantee Republicans a majority of their states’ electoral votes, regardless of whether Republican presidential candidates actually win the states? Well, it’s pretty simple: at least some Republicans still believe that a Republican presidential candidate can win those states in future elections. To split the states’ electors, in Florida and Virginia, could eventually come back to work against the GOP. (Had such a system been in place in those states in 2000, Al Gore would have become president.)
Although Virginia appears to be trending Democratic at the presidential level, it is still close enough that a very strong Republican candidate could win it (or a weak Democrat could lose it). And we all know that Florida persists in being an up-for-grabs state that either side can win. In fact, President Obama barely won it in 2012 (and it was so close that it was the only state I predicted incorrectly). So for Republicans to split those states’ electors may one day deprive a Republican of victory in a close election. It would be a stupid move, and I expect that Republican legislators in Ohio will come to the same conclusion and keep the current winner-take-all format in place. (President Obama only won Ohio by about two percentage points in 2012, which means that Ohio remains a couple points more Republican than the nation as a whole, as it has been consistently for most of the last century; in a 50-50 presidential election, such as 2000, Ohio is a near-certainty to go Republican.)
While it is undoubtedly a relief to hear that Florida and Virginia may not move forward with this plan, we should still be concerned about a move to fix the elections in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the other three states that went Democratic in 2012 but remained under the control of Republican governors and legislatures. President Obama easily won each of those three states in 2012, and none of them have gone to a Republican presidential candidate in a generation. (Pennsylvania and Michigan barely went for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Wisconsin last supported a Republican for president in 1984. That would be Ronald Reagan, who captured 49 states that year and barely lost the 50th, Minnesota, which voted for native son Walter Mondale by about 4,000 votes.)
In short, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have consistently been more Democratic in presidential elections than the nation as a whole for a long, long time. For example, the last time Michigan’s vote went more Republican than the national vote happened in 1976, when the state voted for Michigan native Gerald Ford. In a 50-50 presidential election, these states are all but certain to vote Democratic.
The reason it is still a very real possibility that Republicans may change the electoral allocation in one or more of those three states is because they see no realistic chance that their presidential candidate will win any of them at any time in the foreseeable future. As a result, unlike the situation in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, Republicans have nothing to lose by fiddling with the electors in Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.
The GOP proposals in these states are heinous—an absolute insult both to the concept of equal voting rights for all citizens, and to the very idea of democracy itself. Because the GOP has drawn those states’ congressional districts in such a way that Republicans are disproportionately represented in each state, their proposed reforms would virtually guarantee that any Republican presidential candidate would win a majority of the states’ electors, despite losing those states by significant margins.
Michigan would be the most egregious case. President Obama won the state by nearly 10 percent, but under the current Republican proposal, Mitt Romney would have taken nine of the state’s 16 electoral votes, and Obama would have won seven. In Pennsylvania, where the president won statewide by about five percent, Romney would have gotten at least 12 electoral votes, possibly 13, and Obama would have received no more than eight, possibly just seven. And in Wisconsin, where the president won the state by more than five percent, the electors likely would have split 5-5.
Now, let’s take a look at what might have happened in the 2012 election if this scheme had been in place in just Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. As it happened, President Obama defeated Governor Romney by nearly five million votes nationally, and the president won 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. Under the GOP election-rigging proposal, the electoral vote spread would have shrunk to Obama 306, Romney 232.
Now, let’s say the president’s reelection had been slightly closer—say, perhaps, that he had won by four million votes nationally, rather than nearly five million. That certainly would have flipped Florida, with its 29 electors, to Romney, and quite probably Ohio, with 18 electors, as well.
So, let’s reset here: if the president had won the election by four million votes, rather than nearly five million, and the Republican electoral-vote scheme had been in place in just Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, our electoral college result would have been: Romney 279, Obama 259. In short, Mitt Romney would be president today, despite losing the national election by four million votes.
Now, yes, it has happened that the winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral vote before. It happened in 2000, when George W. Bush became president despite losing the national vote to the aforementioned Al Gore. But that was a rare exception, as were the prior instances of this odd occurrence, which happened in 1888, 1876 and 1824. In all of those cases, except the strange, multi-candidate election of 1824, the national popular vote was so close that one could consider them a statistical tie. For example, Gore’s popular vote victory over Bush in 2000 was about half a million votes, roughly one-half of a percentage point. (The margin for Gore would have grown only slightly even if many Democratic votes in Florida hadn’t been discounted in the final tally.)
But the proposal the Republicans are attempting to advance today would render the popular will of the nation’s voters almost entirely irrelevant. Barring a landslide victory by the Democrats—something on the scale of the 2008 election, which President Obama won by nearly 10 million votes—the Republicans would win every presidential election, even while receiving significantly fewer votes than the Democrats. Landslide election victories don’t happen very often in America—which is why they are remarkable when they happen.
With Republicans having already fixed the U.S. House of Representatives—where they retained control in 2012 despite losing the total accumulated House vote by more than a million votes nationally—and probably being positioned to reclaim the Senate in 2014, the only missing puzzle piece would be the presidency. If they push through their democracy circumvention plans in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, they might nail that last puzzle piece down as well. If this happens, we could see Republicans win the presidency, the House and the Senate in 2016, even if more voters vote for the Democrats in all three cases.
At that point, America ceases to be a democracy and, furthermore, loses all moral authority as the leader of the free world. How can we claim to be a beacon of democracy when our system sets it up for one political party to hold power regardless of how the people actually vote? As Russian president Vladimir Putin noted—in a joint press conference with President George W. Bush, no less—in Russia, the president is the person who wins the most votes. Period. But this would no longer be the case in America.
As noted previously on this blog, there is nothing to stop the Republicans from enacting this legislation. They have the Constitutional right to do it (although my wife, a lawyer who knows the Constitution inside and out, suspects the voters of those states may be able to sue on grounds of disenfranchisement, but I think we know how the current U.S. Supreme Court would probably rule on that). That’s why the 2014 elections in these states are of crucial importance. If Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin go through with this scheme, the voters of those states will have only one chance, in 2014, to put Democrats in charge of the legislatures and governorships so they can overturn these laws before the 2016 election.
The national Democratic Party needs to begin investing heavily now in these states and make a serious push to win them in 2014.