Changing the Electoral College Game

Article II of the United States Constitution states: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” to elect the president. The phrase “in such Manner” does not obviously restrict the way electors may be rewarded.

Even before the last election, some people had proposed changing the way states award electoral votes. The National Popular Vote effort, for example, proposed a compact in which states with a majority of the electoral votes agree to award their votes to the winner of the popular vote for president. Now other people, mostly Republicans, propose that states award each of their electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district in a state.

This proposal is highly partisan, but it is not outlandish. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, now award almost all of their electoral votes by congressional district. In each state, two of their electoral votes (the two they get because of equal state representation in the Senate) go the state-wide winner of the popular vote.

However, proponents of the “district proposal” have not suddenly been convinced of the merits of presidential elections in Maine and Nebraska. Rather, they are beguiled by the thought that Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 had electoral votes been awarded by congressional district.

Here we find the first problem with the proposal: it concerns the past not the future. Much like those liberal Democrats who wished to change the filibuster rule because Sen. McConnell (R-KY) frustrated the president’s desires on health care, some Republicans now wish to change electoral rules in response to the 2012 disaster.

It is unlikely that states governed by Democratic majorities in the legislature would adopt this proposal. Let’s assume they would, however, to think about what might happen.

The “district proposal” would increase the value of partisan redistricting since the presidency as well as the House would now depend on the composition of congressional districts.

The “district proposal” might change nothing. If the partisan majority in every state legislature has already maximized its share of congressional seats, nothing changes. I think that would be the case for most states controlled by the GOP.

State legislatures controlled by the Democrats face a different situation. In 2012, in aggregate Democratic candidates received more votes in House races than Republicans. They ended up with a minority of seats because their voters often live in densely-packed large cities. Hence, the party “wastes” votes in House races. In other words, they win many districts by overwhelming numbers (i.e. “too many” votes all things considered). The Democratic party in the House would be better off if those wasted votes were put in Republican districts.

The “congressional district” proposal would give Democratic legislatures more reasons than they have now to move those “wasted” votes into Republican House districts. All things being equal, those districts would become more competitive; some of them would probably flip from the GOP to a Democratic representative. On the other hand, the districts that gave up the “wasted votes” would also become more competitive. More competition is a good thing, but surely it is not what the proponents of the “district proposal” intended. Moreover, in Democratic states, I imagine the GOP would be a net loser of districts. You can take a lot of Democratic voters out of many urban districts and still have a safe Democratic district. In contrast, Republican representatives in a place like New York would have a much harder time if new Democratic voters started arriving in their districts.

I conclude that House elections would perhaps become marginally more competitive under the “district proposal.” The gain in competitiveness would come in GOP districts in blue states. The flip side of that conclusion would be that a Republican presidential victory would become marginally less likely than it was in 2012 under the proposal. The enhanced competitiveness probably serves the general interest; make what you will of the likely GOP frustration.

The “district proposal” would also work against what remains of the older ideal that congressional districts should be a community of interest. The incentives noted above would tend to make partisanship more of a criterion for drawing district lines. Partisanship has its place in politics. The question here should be: would the nation benefit from a mixture of more electoral competition and more partisanship in elections?

Ironically, partisanship, along with other considerations, may doom the “district proposal.” The Democrats will see a GOP plot in the proposal, and Republicans will go down the game tree and recognize that future elections under this proposal will not be the same as they were in 2012, to the GOP’s likely detriment. Indeed, the proposal seems off to a poor start.

Plus, the proposal smells of desperation on the part of the GOP.

Think again.