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Monday, January 07, 2013

It's Never Too Early To Think About 2016

Even though the presidential election is over and won’t return until 2016, election legislation is a year-round business. And that beleaguered institution, the Electoral College, is the object of recent legislative buzz. Some are shocked—shocked!—that politicians may write facially neutral rules that might improve their own political party’s chances.

The larger scheme to effectively abolish the Electoral College, the National Popular Vote, has slowed of late. It’s a process that fascinates me (and one I’ve written a little about), but it’s not the one I want to focus on here. Instead, I want to examine a smaller, more piecemeal effort.

Under Article II, state legislatures have the power to direct how they appoint presidential electors. Today, most states have adopted a winner-take-all system: the winner of a plurality of that state’s popular vote wins the whole slate of presidential electors. (It’s largely in their rational self-interest: a big chunk of electoral votes awarded to a single candidate makes the state more influential and attracts more attention from the candidates.)

Two states, however, use the “district method.” Thus, in Maine and Nebraska, the presidential candidate who wins each congressional district in the state earns one elector, and the statewide winner earns two electors. In Nebraska in 2008, for example, Senator John McCain won the 1st and 3d districts, Senator Barack Obama won the 2d district, and Mr. McCain won the statewide vote; that yielded four electors for Mr. McCain and one elector for Mr. Obama.

After the 2012 election, a few states are now considering adopting such a method. Legislators in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia have floated such an idea, as has the governor of Wisconsin and, in slightly more abstract terms, the Secretary of State of Ohio.

But there is a common thread—perhaps just a big coincidence. Each advocate is a Republican in a state with Republican legislative control and a Republican governor—in a state that has preferred the Democratic presidential candidate in the last two presidential elections.

There is, perhaps obviously, a serious advantage to the Republican presidential candidates if these states, previously winner-take-all slates of electors for the Democratic candidates, move to a system where the Republican candidate can win at least a portion of the electors. If enough states do it, pretty soon we’re talking real numbers.

Additionally, more Republicans than Democrats won House districts—Republicans hold a 33-seat advantage—despite the fact that Democratic candidates received more popular votes nationwide. (One slightly upset commentator called them “ridiculous gerrymanders.”)

For three reasons, I’m not that worried.

First, there often are House-President “mismatches.” Nebraska’s Second District in 2008, is one such “mismatch,” where the winner of the congressional seat was a Republican but a winner of the presidential vote was a Democrat.  In 2012, Virginia’s Second District is another similar example. Granted, there aren’t many. But the mere fact that a district is gerrymandered to favor a Republican or Democratic member of Congress is no guarantee of the same result in a presidential election. (Moreover, such a change, if enacted, would prompt different behavior from presidential campaigns, which would likely yield more mismatches.)

Second, it’s been proposed before… and it generally has remained just that—a proposal. In 2012, Pennsylvania considered an identical plan, and it didn’t go anywhere. Republicans in California and Democrats in North Carolina considered (and rejected) the district method prior to the 2008 election. Colorado voters considered (and rejected) a plan for proportional allocation of electors in 2004. It seems as if all this has happened before, and will happen again.

Third, call it Rawlsian concern, to borrow a bit from Chad Flanders, that the partisans might not apply a rule today that might backfire on them tomorrow. Take the North Carolina proposal before the 2008 election. Had Democrats in North Carolina had their way, North Carolina’s electors would have been apportioned by congressional district because, so the thinking went, there was little chance that a Democrat would carry the state. Fast forward just a few months, and the Democratic candidate carries the state.

Despite partisan motives, legislatures will be slow to act given the uncertainty of what the next presidential election may hold. And so they are disinclined to make temporary partisan gains for an uncertain political future.

To be the wet blanket on this media fire, I don’t think there’s too much “there” there. But, perhaps you disagree? I’m interested to hear.

Posted by Derek Muller on January 7, 2013 at 07:56 AM in Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink

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