Virginia's Ill-Considered Electoral College Idea

Virginia's Ill-Considered Electoral College Idea

By Sean Trende - January 25, 2013

On the heels of a controversial mid-decade redistricting decision, the Virginia Senate is now considering a proposal to split the state’s electoral votes by congressional district. In the last election, Mitt Romney would have won nine of the state’s 13 electors under such an arrangement, despite winning only 47 percent of the state’s vote.

This can’t be viewed in a vacuum, but rather has to be seen in the context of similar GOP proposals in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The idea is that a Republican presidential candidate would always win a majority of these states’ electoral votes, since Democratic votes are concentrated in a few districts, almost always urban and/or minority-majority.

I think some of the criticisms of this are overblown. It doesn’t violate the principle of one-person/one-vote (except, arguably, Virginia’s decision to award the two statewide electoral votes to the winner of the most congressional districts), as instead of 8 million people competing to award 11 electors, plus the statewide electors, you have 11 groups of 720,000 people competing for one elector; the voters-to-elector ratio is the same.

Nor does it strike me as harshly undemocratic. The Electoral College is, after all, an anti-democratic institution; whether that is a positive or a negative is a subject for legitimate debate. But at the end of the day, the idea of Barack Obama winning 51 percent of the vote in a state and receiving 30 percent of the electors doesn’t strike me as that much more absurd than Mitt Romney winning 47 percent of the vote but receiving zero percent of the state’s electors.

We aren’t a strictly majoritiarian country: The Bill of Rights and the redistricting provisions of the Voting Rights Act confirm the notion that there are more important principles than simply allowing the majority to elect whomever it wants and enact the agenda it wants. The Electoral College (and Senate) discourages the sort of geographically narrow coalition the Democrats have, and insists that rural areas can’t be ignored. There are reasons to think this sort of diversity is unimportant, but I don’t dismiss the arguments of Virginia representatives who argue otherwise.

That said, I think these types of moves are bad ideas regardless of party (they were popular with my Democratic friends in the early 2000s), for five reasons.

1) It will have unintended consequences. Given the current Democratic coalition, this hurts the Democrats more than it hurts Republicans. In fact, if adopted nationally, these sorts of changes mean Barack Obama would have lost the Electoral College in 2012.

But coalitions are always changing, sometimes rapidly. In 2000, the Democrats’ coalition was broad enough that Al Gore would have won the Electoral College (as well as the popular vote). History isn’t a one-way ratchet, and there’s no reason to believe that 12 years from now, the Democrats wouldn’t benefit from this.

In the cases of Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, it is easy to see how that might be the case. All three are swing states, close to the national margins in presidential contests (though more Republican in state contests). One could easily see a Republican carrying all three while winning a close national vote, but being deprived of an Electoral College win because he or she sacrifices four votes in Virginia, four or five in Ohio, and four or five in Pennsylvania.

Indeed, that is the history of these attempts to effectively gerrymander the Electoral College. In October 1864, Republicans were unsure of Abraham Lincoln’s victory, so they admitted Nevada to the Union. It voted Republican the next few years, but went Democrat in 1880, then voted for Democrats again in six of the seven elections between 1892 and 1916.

Republicans also admitted six Western states in the late 1880s and early 1890s in an attempt to bolster their electoral fortunes. But the “silver issue” (revolving around the use of silver as currency, which would benefit the silver-rich West) quickly moved to the forefront, and over the next three elections, Republican presidential candidates went just 7-for-18 in those states. (Furthermore, in 1916 they provided Woodrow Wilson’s margin of victory.)

And Democrats insisted on admitting Alaska to the Union -- which had elected only Democrats as territorial delegates since 1932 -- to counter the admission of Hawaii, which had sent Republicans to Washington in all but five elections in its history.

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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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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