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Virginia's Ill-Considered Electoral College Idea

By Sean Trende - January 25, 2013

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In other words, in a simple cost-benefit analysis, the benefit conferred upon whichever party enacts the change is likely to be short-lived.

2) It encourages radical gerrymandering. Gerrymandering doesn’t keep me awake at night as much as it does some people, and its effects are overstated, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s a good thing. And the most likely effect of this scheme is to put enormous pressure on state legislatures to redraw lines as favorably as possible to their parties; we saw some of that pressure in Maine and Nebraska (which have this system) in 2011.

3) It encourages Bush v. Gores. It is fairly uncommon for states to be so close that a recount is needed, but it happens in congressional races all the time. Since the incentive will be to draw districts that favor one party -- but not by too much -- we can expect to see more contested elections when the popular vote ends up being close.

4) It would weaken the power of minorities. One of the least-remarked advantages to the Electoral College (and Senate) is that it forces politicians to pay attention to relatively small minorities in key states. The Jewish vote in Florida (and once in New York) is only important because that state is important. The same is true for Cubans. Latinos would not receive nearly as much attention from Republicans and Democrats if they weren’t a growing group in key states like Texas and California.

Perhaps most importantly, a strong case can be made that, absent the Electoral College and Senate, the Democrats would not have switched to a pro-Civil Rights position. Blacks were a tiny portion of the electorate nationwide, but after the Second Great Migration were a crucial swing demographic in states like Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Alienating the South somewhat made electoral sense, but didn’t make sense in the context of the popular vote.

Moving to a system based on congressional districts would have the opposite effect, since the Voting Rights Act requires minorities to be grouped into minority-majority districts. So instead of being a key demographic in the fight for Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, African-Americans would be irrelevant to the outcome for all but three or four electoral votes.

5) It reeks of politics, and delegitimizes presidents and the Electoral College. Again, Maine and Nebraska have these types of systems, and they work fairly smoothly. But enacting these plans in swing states, immediately before or after an election, has pretty transparent partisan motives. There’s little doubt why Virginia Republicans want this system; if they’d enacted it back when Virginia was reliably red, it might be a different story.

Moreover, one benefit of the Electoral College is it tends to produce landslides even in fairly close races; in other words, it provides legitimacy to narrow winners. This change would have the exact opposite effect. Barack Obama won the popular vote by a decent margin, but would have lost the electoral vote if this had been enacted nationwide. If this had been enacted in the six blue states (in the last election) controlled by Republicans, he would have barely won.

Taken together, the net result would be catastrophic. Close elections would likely always result in extensive recounts, we could see huge disparities between the popular and electoral vote, and the partisan motive behind it would be transparent -- Republicans would not be able to say, as they could in 2000, “we’ve had these rules for 200 years; they just happened to benefit us this time.” A very slight discrepancy in 2000 had a profoundly negative impact on President Bush; the delegitimizing effect on the winner of a close election down the road could be immense. Given the scope of the problems facing the country today, this is something we can ill afford. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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