Since the Anti-Federalist papers of 1787-88, politicians have criticized one of the quirkiest Constitutional provisions, the Electoral College. Following President Obama’s 2012 victory, Republicans in five states continued this tradition by proposing a new method to allocate their state’s electoral votes. Instead of “winner take all,” where the winner of a state’s popular vote receives all its electoral votes, some Republican state legislatures have considered allocating electoral votes to the popular vote winner in each congressional district of the state. While this approach has some merit, the timing, closely following Governor Romney’s defeat, has fueled skepticism and charges of gamesmanship that will derail any reform.
Leveraging GOP’s State Advantage
Although Republicans lost at the national level, they emerged from the 2012 elections as the strongest party at the state level. Republicans retained control of both the governorship and legislature in 24 states. These states award 275 electoral votes, or 51 percent of all 538 electors. By contrast, Democrats control all government branches in only 13 states with 156 electoral votes.
This disparity influences the politics of electoral reform. Article II, Section I, Clause II of the Constitution empowers state legislatures to determine how to allocate their states’ electoral votes. As Ron Kaufman, a senior Romney campaign adviser noted to the HPR, “First of all, you have to remember, this is a state decision, not a national decision. Each state should decide for itself how best it would like to allocate its electoral votes.” While 48 states follow the “winner take all” method, Maine and Nebraska use a different approach. These states allocate one electoral vote to the winner of the popular vote in each federal congressional district, plus two electoral votes to the overall state popular vote winner. These reforms force candidates to expand campaigns beyond a few urban centers.
Mixed Reactions to GOP Proposals
Given Maine and Nebraska’s established practices, Republican legislatures were surprised by the national outcry against similar electoral vote reforms. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin legislatures all recently considered district-based allocation systems.
Instead of heralding the GOP plan as a way to increase voter turnout and participation, New York Times columnist Charles Blow lambasted the proposal as a “devilish plan.” Many analysts perceived the move to district-based allocation as a thinly veiled Republican attempt to capitalize on favorably gerrymandered congressional districts. The timing, on the heels of Romney’s loss, supports this criticism. Bob Shrum, senior adviser to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, described the plan to the HPR as “transparently undemocratic,” noting that had all 50 states adopted Virginia’s proposed reforms for the 2012 election, Romney would have won the Electoral College by a 16-vote margin, despite losing the national popular vote by four percent.
Notwithstanding Democrats’ objections, GOP reforms could lead to more engaging presidential campaigns. These reforms retain the country’s federalist structure, while pushing candidates to expend time and money reaching voters in a larger number of states. For example, in 2012, 21 states contained at least one district where the two leading candidates finished within seven percent of each other. However, following their respective party conventions, candidates Obama and Romney confined their campaign appearances to just ten key swing states. In addition, the reforms would lower the financial and logistical hurdles required to manage statewide campaigns, The increased accessibility to winning electoral votes would promote viable third party candidates, thus expanding voter choice.
More broadly, the GOP’s Electoral College proposals are just the latest example of partisan post-election reform efforts. Following the controversial 2000 presidential election, scholars and politicians developed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This compact, passed by eight states, binds participating states to allocate electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. The compact takes effect once states comprising a majority of the Electoral College votes adopt it. A vocal supporter of the compact is 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who told the HPR, “I think the Electoral College should have been abolished 150 years ago. It’s got no place in the political system these days … The thing is just crazy.” However, the compact has failed to gain bipartisan support. Seven of the eight states that adopted the compact currently have unified Democratic state governments and none have supported a Republican in the Electoral College since 1988.
The 2012 vote suggests that recent gerrymandering has given Republicans an advantage. Democrats opposed to GOP reforms note Republicans won a 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives last November, despite losing the overall popular vote for representatives by 1.3 percent. However, Democrat claims of Republican-favored gerrymandering may be exaggerated, since Democrats generally find overwhelming support in concentrated urban environments. In the 2012 presidential election, the 27 congressional districts with the widest percentage disparity between the two candidates all voted for President Obama. Of course, had different rules prevailed in 2012, the candidates would have adjusted their campaign strategies. Nevertheless, Republican leaders must face the perception that many voters believe Republicans are seeking to manipulate the Electoral College system.
Why the GOP Should Abandon Electoral Reform
In January, Virginia Republicans allowed their reform proposal to die in committee. Republicans in other states would be wise to follow suit. The current push for district-based allocation could harm the GOP in three ways.
First, independent voters may turn from Republicans who appear to manipulate the Electoral College. Supporting this view, Shrum predicted to the HPR, “People like [Ohio Governor John] Kasich, [Michigan Governor Rick] Snyder, and [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker are going to have enough trouble anyway without this issue dragging through the midterms.” The five legislatures that most actively considered district-allocation are in swing states, where alienation of independents could cause Republicans to lose seats in both state and federal races.
Second, Republicans should be wary of exploiting their current advantage in state legislatures. Dominant majorities can quickly fade. While 24 states currently have Republican controlled governments, a mere four years ago, Republicans controlled only nine state governments. As Kaufman noted to the HPR, “For years and years, Democratic legislatures passed bills to do this [type of reform] and now Republicans are looking at it. Both parties have looked at this from the day we started our republic.” If Democrats regain power to gerrymander more state congressional districts, the GOP would be hurt by its own reforms.
Third, so long as gerrymandered districts persist, district-based allocation creates a higher risk the Electoral College will elect a president who did not win the national popular vote. Since 1952, only George W. Bush in 2000 won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. However, during this 60 year period, nationwide district-allocation would have elected the national popular vote loser three times: Nixon in 1960, Bush in 2000, and Romney in 2012. This method would have also produced a tie in 1976.
Both Democrats and Republicans support Electoral College reform. Each side professes lofty goals: to increase voter participation by expanding the areas where candidates campaign, and decrease the gap between the will of the people and the results of the Electoral College. However, despite common goals, current reform attempts are likely to fail, due to lack of bipartisan support. Like the creation of the original Electoral College, successful reform attempts must aim for long-term national progress through compromise, rather than short-term partisan gain. Voters are genuinely frustrated with tight national elections that hinge upon the preferences of a minority of voters in a handful of swing states, while most voters are reduced to electoral spectators. Democrats and Republicans must look beyond the next four years and develop a plan to better express the will of the voters they claim to represent.