A Map Is Worth A Thousand Votes

Democrats are approaching an "Electoral College lock." Republicans are trying to pick it.

There is talk of Democrats developing the sort of “Electoral College lock” Republicans had a generation ago. Republicans are trying to pick it.

A few days back, Brad DeLong posted this chart, which he attributes to Nate Silver:

As Chris Cillizza explains,

The 332 electoral votes that Obama won on Nov. 6 not only affirmed that edge but also raised the question of whether Democrats were in the midst of the sort of electoral college stranglehold that Republicans enjoyed during the 1980s. (Ronald Reagan won 500+ electoral votes twice; George H.W. Bush won 426 in 1988.)

This chart – put together by Brad DeLong, an economist at Cal-Berkley — shows just how firm a grip Democrats have on the electoral map.  If the 2016 Democratic nominee carried only the states that President Obama won by 4.5 points or more last month, he/she would end up with 272 electoral votes and a victory.

For those not old enough to remember, it was once almost impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency despite Democrats being easily the majority party in the country. Until 1994, Democrats held a stranglehold on the House of Representatives for decades. But Republicans won the White House in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988, often by landslides. The only loss was 1976, in something of a perfect storm for Democrats. Watergate tarnished the Republican brand, gave the GOP a weak nominee in Gerald Ford, and Democrat Jimmy Carter was arguably more conservative–certainly on the social issues–than his Republican opponent. Even so, Carter just squeaked into office.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush won 40 states. In 1992, he won only 18. In 1988, Bush won California, as virtually every Republican had in memory. No Republican presidential nominee has come close to carrying the Golden State since. There are a variety of reasons for that, which are beyond the scope of this essay. But the shifting of California from automatic Red to automatic Blue is a 110 Electoral vote swing in a contest to be the first to 270. And starting with California’s 55 and New York’s 29 Electors out of the gate means Democrats only need another 186 Electors out of the other 48 states; actually, 183 since DC’s three Electors are safely in their column, too.

Obviously, the need to appeal to Hispanics and younger voters is part of the puzzle. Republican politicians and intellectual leaders have spent a lot of energy talking about how to do that over the last month. That, too, is subject for another discussion.

But Republicans across the country have adopted another strategy, too, that has Democrats crying foul.  As noted over the weekend, Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing to change how their state’s Electoral votes are allocated. After an effort to adopt the Maine-Nebraska model of awarding one vote to the winner of each Congressional district and the two “Senate” electors to the statewide winner failed, they’re now pushing to allocate the votes proportionally. As noted in that post, I think it’s the right thing to do even though the motivation is crassly partisan.

Pennyslvania is not alone.  A state senator in my home state of Virginia is hoping to get the same thing passed here. If that system had been in place for this past election, Mitt Romney would have gotten 7 of the state’s 11 Electoral votes—even though President Obama carried the state by 4 points.  As vehemently as I dislike the current method, that would have been a grossly unfair result.

The Nation‘s Ari Berman calls this “The GOP’s New Voter Suppression Strategy: Gerrymander the Electoral College.”

For a brief time in the fall of 2011, Pennsylvania GOP Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to deliver the bulk of his state’s electoral votes to Mitt Romney. Pileggi wanted Pennsylvania to award its electoral votes not via the winner-take-all system in place in forty-eight states but instead based on the winner of each Congressional district. Republicans, by virtue of controlling the redistricting process, held thirteen of eighteen congressional seats in Pennsylvania following the 2012 election. If Pileggi’s plan would have been in place on November 6, 2012, Romney would’ve captured thirteen of Pennsylvania’s twenty Electoral College votes, even though Obama carried the state with 52 percent of the vote.

In the wake of Romney’s defeat and the backfiring of GOP voter suppression efforts, Pileggi is resurrecting his plan (albeit in a slightly different form) and the idea of gerrymandering the Electoral College to boost the 2016 GOP presidential candidate is spreading to other GOP-controlled battleground states that Obama carried, like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Thanks to big gains at the state legislative level in 2010, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in twenty states compared to seven for Democrats, drawing legislative and Congressional maps that will benefit their party for the next decade. (The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that Republicans picked up six additional House seats in 2012 due to redistricting.) Republicans now want to extend their redistricting advantage to the presidential realm.

Now, again, I support moving away from the winner-take-all allocation of Electors. Indeed, I support abolishing the Electoral College (which, as Steven Taylor has explained numerous times never functioned as the Framers intended) altogether in favor of a simple national vote for president. To the extent that formally amending the Constitution is unachievable, I support a workaround that awards Electors in a fashion more consistent with the vote in each state. But, clearly, awarding them based on gerrymandered districts distorts the outcome even more than the winner-take-all method.

Indeed, as Toby Harnden points out, Mitt Romney would have won the election had the vote been allocated based on Congressional districts.

Mitt Romney has won 222 congressional districts to President Barack Obama’s 206 with seven counts still to be completed, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report. 

Although Obama won the 2012 election in an electoral college landslide of 332 to 206 votes and 51 to 47 per cent of the popular vote, if the election had been fought on the basis of who won the most of the 435 congressional districts then Romney would have cruised home.

According to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Obama won 15 districts that congressional Republicans took while Romney was the victor in six districts where Obama prevailed.

There was just one district in the country that Senator John Kerry won in 2004 that Romney won this time around – Pennsylvania’s eighth congressional district.

The discrepancy between the congressional districts, which are drawn up according to popupulation and each contain about 647,000 voters, and the electoral college is accounted for by Romney amassing large numbers of congressional districts in ‘red’ – Republican – states, particularly across the South.

But they also underline that the election was relatively close, with just a few hundred thousand votes in Florida, Virginia and Ohio – all relatively narrowly won by Obama – separating the two nominees.
Well, it shows that the outcome of elections—and the perception of the outcome of elections—can vary considerably based simply on the way votes are counted.
GHW Bush’s 1988 win is widely considered the last landslide presidential election. But his  53.4 to 45.7 national margin is virtually identical to Obama’s 52.9 to 45.7 margin two decades later. But Bush carried 40 states to Obama’s 28 and 426 Electors to Obama’s 365. The difference is purely a function of lines on a map.

Sam Hirsh notes in the Michigan Law Review that, if the Congressional district system had been in place,  the controversial 2000 election fight would have been moot: Bush would have won easily. This, despite getting half a million fewer votes than Al Gore. Not only that, but Bob Dole, who got trounced by Bill Clinton in 1996, would have won the election.  Explains Hirsh:

The congressional-district system would inject into the Electoral College a significant and consistent partisan slant because it combines “malapportionment bias” and “distributional bias.” Under the traditional system, the presidential election effectively consists of fifty-one winner-take-all contests-one in each state, plus the District of Columbia. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring the fact that two small states, Maine and Nebraska, have already adopted the congressional-district system.) Under a nationwide application of the congressional-district system, the contests would still be winner-take-all, but there would be 487 of them-fifty-one statewide contests for two electors apiece, plus 436 district-wide contests for one elector apiece (one in each of the 435 House districts and one in the District of Columbia). For the District of Columbia or any of the seven states that currently has only one representative in Congress (and thus only three electors), it is possible to re-conceptualize the contest as a statewide race for three electors, but that would not significantly alter the analysis presented here.

Malapportionment bias is the main problem with having fifty-one statewide contests for two electors apiece. This form of partisan bias comes from apportioning the same number of seats to a lightly populated area as to a heavily populated one. The classic example of a malapportioned legislative body is the U.S. Senate, where California and Wyoming each get two Senators, even though the former now has more than fifty times as many residents (and voters) as the latter. If one major party’s political strength is located disproportionately in relatively large states, and the other party’s strength is located disproportionately in the smaller states, the former party will be harmed by (and the latter party will profit from) a malapportionment bias.

Empirically, such malapportionment bias would exist today under the congressional-district system. Republicans, who tend to run well in rural areas, are stronger in small states, while Democrats, who tend to run well in urban areas, are stronger in large states. This explains why Bush could carry thirty and thirty-one states in 2000 and 2004, respectively, without winning a nationwide landslide: he won most of the smaller states, while his Democratic opponents won most of the larger states. The congressional-district system would effectively award the first 102 electors to the winners of the fifty-one statewide contests, regardless of population. In an election where the nationwide popular vote is roughly tied, that system would have given the Republicans something like a sixty-two to forty lead in electoral votes-even before any of the congressional-district-based electors were awarded.

The congressional-district system would be even more heavily biased when awarding the 436 district-based electors. The problem here is not malapportionment bias, as each district has, very roughly, the same total population. Rather, the problem is distributional bias. A party’s support is more efficiently distributed if there are many districts that favor the party by only relatively narrow margins. Having lots of support in districts that favor the party by landslide margins is an inefficient distribution, as such districts waste votes that otherwise might have determined the outcomes in more competitive districts.

Choosing a single, nation-wide office holder based on a series of 50 state-wide contests distorts the vote considerably. All Republican votes in California are “wasted,” as are all Democratic votes in Texas. Going down to 435 Congressional districts magnifies the problem geometrically. That’s much more the case, of course, when those districts are drawn with the actual intent of concentrating partisan votes in some districts.

So, yes, let’s abolish or reform the Electoral College. But this particular reform–using gerrymandered congressional districts as the basis for deciding the president–takes a slightly unfair system and turns it into a grossly unfair system.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    The GOP can’t win because it’s philosophy and ideas are stupid. Or we could say “outdated” if we wanted to be more polite. But, still: stupid.

    So rather than get smart, they’re going for dishonest. Steal what you can’t win. The fact that they are willing to steal shows that your party knows it is incapable of adapting and changing.

  2. Geek, Esq. says:

    There is at least a constitutional rationale for the EC–the states pick the President.

    Going to districts within states openly discriminates and disenfranchises urban voters who live near one another and thus almost have to be concentrated together in geographically contiguous units.

  3. Geek, Esq. says:

    Also, that chart is outdates and the news is even worse for the GOP. Obama won nationally and in Virginia by 4%.

  4. stonetools says:

    The good thing is that people are now debating these arcane issues of electoral law. If we don’t discuss these issues, there will be no movement. At least there is now the possibility of movement.

  5. swbarnes2 says:

    A state senator in my home state of Virginia is hoping to get the same thing passed here.

    A Republican one. Meaning had you been eligible to vote for him, you would have done so.

    Talk is cheap. Stop acting so outraged over horrible policies that you supported or would have supported with your votes. When you vote for Republicans, you yield the moral high ground.

  6. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The GOP can’t win because it’s philosophy and ideas are stupid. Or we could say “outdated” if we wanted to be more polite. But, still: stupid.

    “Outdated” might be true, if there ever had been a previous date where those ideas held. But I don’t think that’s the case in half a century. Nixon, Ford, Reagan (yes, even Reagan), Bush Sr and even much of Bush Jr are Rino’s by today’s GOP standards.

    And even going back further, I think Teddy Roosevelt and people of his era would be considered Rino’s today.

    So I think you’re going to have to go with “stupid”.

  7. Just Me says:

    My objection to a national popular vote means that candidates will pretty much focus on the urban areas with some suburbs thrown in.

    Rural voters would pretty much be written off. That is pretty much already how it is in states like Pennsylvania and Virginia-and I am not sure that is any better or worse than what we already have.

    I do think there is a problem for the GOP given that they pretty much aren’t appealing to any degree to the urban voter. When a GOP candidate can’t win even 1% of the votes in many urban areas and when the GOP isn’t even close to viable in any urban center-the future of the electorate is clearly going to be the urban voter and most of them will march happily to the polls and vote for the person with the D beside their name even if they are currupt.

  8. john personna says:

    Having some states proportional and some not, and having legislatures picking one or the other based on desired outcome for the legislature-controlling party, is all very anti-democratic.

  9. David M says:

    @Just Me:

    My objection to a national popular vote means that candidates will pretty much focus on the urban areas with some suburbs thrown in.

    Rural voters would pretty much be written off. That is pretty much already how it is in states like Pennsylvania and Virginia-and I am not sure that is any better or worse than what we already have.

    Maybe urban voters should only get 3/5 of a real, rural vote.

  10. john personna says:

    (Basically, having a dramatic mixture of proportional and non- states would make the election invalid in my view. It is neither a direct vote nor a state representational system. It would be full of wonky systemic effects. Nebraska and Maine are small enough now that it’s not a big issue, but get one large state into proportional and some not, suddenly you’ve changed the value of a vote, moving state to state.)

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    The house is grossly undemocratic…..it would do credit to a banana Republic which is what the Republicans would like to turn this country into. The Democrats got 51% of the house vote nationally and 46% of the seats. It’s grotesque.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    And why stop there……can anyone tell me why a state with 600,000 voters gets two senators while CA with millions of voters gets the same two.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: It was a necessary compromise to create a better union than existed under the previous constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, the 13 states were truly states. That is, they were sovereign entities uniting in a loose confederation for trade and foreign policy advantage, much like the European Union of today. The “Great Compromise,” which created a House based roughly on population and a Senate based on sovereign equality, was always unfair. That’s been magnified by population trends.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Just Me: The urban centers are, by definition, where most people live. That’s what makes them urban centers. So, saying, “just focus on urban centers” is another way of saying “just focus on people.”

  15. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Just Me:

    Rural voters would pretty much be written off.

    And they aren’t already? When was the last time that you saw a candidate seriously campaigning in Kansas? Montana? etc.?

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Joyner:

    The “Great Compromise,” which created a House based roughly on population and a Senate based on sovereign equality, was always unfair.

    I would posit that it was intended to be unfair. We operate under the myth that the founders intended to create some sort of egalitarian paradise, and that’s wholly inaccurate. If anything, what they created was, by design, a benevolent oligarchy.

    Consider where the true power in government lies – the Senate. It alone approves treaties. It alone approves nominees for office. It alone holds the power to convict and remove government officials. It holds de facto veto power over every action of the House, and it is elected to 6 year terms. At the outset, its members were appointed to 6 year terms by their state legislatures.

    And virtually all of those legislatures had barriers to participation predicated on net worth / wealth / land ownership / etc. The founders, virtually all of whom were wealthy individuals, reserved the true power in government to people like themselves.

    We won’t even get into Jefferson and Adams, among many others, strongly arguing for the premise that access to voting should be conditioned on wealth. People romanticize history, instead of seeing it as it was.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    Basically, having a dramatic mixture of proportional and non- states would make the election invalid in my view.

    And the Republican party knows this and does not care. Republicans just voted in an election where their party was actively trying to keep Americans from voting. And they didn’t care. Barely a peep, even from the supposedly rational Republicans. Afterward they admit that it was exactly what Democrats said it was, an effort to disenfranchise the black, the brown and the young. So their response is to do more of the same: more voter suppression, more rigging of the system.

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    JJ I know why we have the system we have which is why we also have he EC.Since you appear to consider the EC a relic does your enthusiasm for democracy extend to doing away with other relics like the senatorial system and leaving districting in the hands of partisan politicians.

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    @Just Me:

    My objection to a national popular vote means that candidates will pretty much focus on the urban areas with some suburbs thrown in.

    You mean they’ll focus on the areas where most voters live, as opposed to focusing on the areas where most voters don’t live? Horrors!

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Actually in this day and age I’d say most of the power in govt resides in the presidency. In fact overwhelmingly so which of course has given rise to all those tomes on the imperial presidency. I read a very interesting book on the topic about a year ago by Richard Posner’s son Eric and a prof from Harvard called Adrian Vermeule. Basically their premise is that the entire concept of the Madisonian Republican is obsolete.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Since you appear to consider the EC a relic does your enthusiasm for democracy extend to doing away with other relics like the senatorial system and leaving districting in the hands of partisan politicians.

    Yes. I think Congressional districts should be drawn by independent commissions and then rubber stamped by state legislatures. Many states do that now. The Senate is a gross injustice but abolishing it simply isn’t on the table; the best we can do there is to reform its operation by limiting the need for supermajority vote to the most impactful bills.

  22. rodney dill says:

    I think you’re gonna need a bigger vote.

  23. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    No argument, but we got there by changing the design as laid out by the founders. We’ve made it more egalitarian ( to a point anyway), but it wasn’t originally designed to be that way.

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    It certainly wasn’t originally designed to be egalitarian but I’m not sure the basic structure has changed that much……If Madison returned he’d recognise the basic structure…..the only really significant difference is that Senators are now elected directly. What’s changed is the extent and complexity of govt and this has shifted the balance of power decisively in the direction of the executive which controls not only all the departments of government which are much more numerous than at the foundation but all the quasi govt institutions like the SEC; and has had deputed to it by congress all kinds of functions which the other branches of govt aren’t capable of exercising in a modern world. It’s probably also fair to say that the increasing complexity of govt has increased the power of the judiciary considerably.

  25. Jeremy R says:

    I’m completely opposed to these partisan state elector reapportionment schemes. You’re just going to end up with this being yet another partisan tool, like redistricting, that is used to limit the democratic power of the electorate. Once it becomes an acceptable tactic, why wouldn’t state’s apportionment shift each time party control changes? It would end up being an embarrassment and a mess.

    If your ultimate goal is to move to presidential elections decided by popular vote, instead sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

  26. Curtis says:

    I would be much happier with a national popular vote. I’ll just stipulate this out front.

    As a Democrat, I would love for Virginia to implement this reform. As Jonathon Bernstein pointed out at the plain blog, Virginia still leans slightly Republican. Obama won Virginia by less than he won the national vote. So if the election is razor thin, the Republican is likely winning Virginia, but probably losing a third of its electoral votes. If Republicans are going to fight for reforms that will make it harder for them to win, I may not agree with them, but it isn’t going to be my highest priority to stop them.

    And while it is interesting that Romney won more congressional districts than Obama, you cannot really say he would have won the election if held under those rules. Presumably, both campaigns would know the rules from the outset, and so instead of battling for swing states, they would have battled for swing districts, and we can guess, but we don’t really know how that would have turned out.

    And I agree that Obama 2008 was a landslide.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The GOP can’t win because it’s philosophy and ideas are stupid. Or we could say “outdated” if we wanted to be more polite. But, still: stupid.

    So rather than get smart, they’re going for dishonest. Steal what you can’t win. The fact that they are willing to steal shows that your party knows it is incapable of adapting and changing.

    What you said …..

  28. bill says:

    as we further sink into the economic doldrums people will wake up and realize that they made another mistake. it’s cyclical, deal with it. perhaps the”‘right to work” movement will further squash the endless flow of union cash into democrat coffers?!

  29. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Consider what things would be like without the Senate. In a two-party system with one house and an executive it would be a recipe for stalemate when the Presidency and House are controlled by different parties. When both are controlled by the same party it would be nothing but partisan legislation (along with repealing the stuff the other party did). If you don’t like one party government with a Senate (See the GWB administration for an example of how great that turned out) then you’re going to hate it with no Senate.

    The issue I’m getting at is that the Senate doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like it or not, this country is not a nation state, it is a political union between sovereign states even if the distinction between states has much less meaning and importance than it used to. You’d have to do much more than simply get rid of the Senate, you’d have to rewrite the compact that created this nation, fundamentally change the political order in this country, reconsider the other elements of government, separation of powers, the two-party system and all that. And to do that would require the consent of the individual states. I have a hard time believing that the states would allow themselves to become mere administrative units in a new Constitutional framework.

  30. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @bill:

    perhaps the”‘right to work” movement will further squash the endless flow of union cash into democrat coffers?!

    Which, if we’re honest about it, is pretty much IMO the only real goal that Michigan Republicans had for passing this gem – hobbling the opposition.

  31. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner: \

    Most people actually do not live in urban center but actually live in the suburbs around the urban centers. More people live in Fairfax County or Montgomery County than live in the District of Columbia. More people live in the 60 plus suburbs around St Louis than actually live in the city itself. One of the differences is that people who lived in the suburbs used to be more Republican but as the suburbs fill with non-whites, government workers, and other core groups of the Democratic Party, the suburbs have become more blue.

    Any political scientist or wonk who can count should be able to see that the general election for president will be moot in the future. The real election for president in 2016 will be the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary since the Democratic nominee will easily win. What is humorous is how hard the wonks are working to ignore reality.

  32. Just Me says:

    So, saying, “just focus on urban centers” is another way of saying “just focus on people.”

    So urban and rural people don’t have different needs? Different issues? So the only people who should count are those who live in urban centers?

    Also, given the fact that the democrats control the urban centers and the GOP is all but non existent as a viable party, and most of those centers are run like banana republics, do we really want this to happen on the national level?

    The democrats are altruistic nor will they create a utopia-give them all the power and they will become Chicago where the crooks get elected because they have a D beside their names.

  33. Barry says:

    @bill: English, please? What you wrote was closer to word salad.

  34. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Just Me:

    and most of those centers are run like banana republics,

    There is no shortage of banana republics in the rural south. The poorest and most corrupt states are pretty well concentrated in the south and what goes on at the local level in a lot of these places defies belief.

  35. An Interested Party says:

    perhaps the”‘right to work” movement will further squash the endless flow of union cash into democrat coffers?!

    This is of the same piece as Voter ID laws…Republicans look for any way they can to hobble the Democrats, so they pass laws to make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote and they pass other laws to hurt those groups that support the Democratic Party…people need to remember this the next time they hear about supposed “voter fraud or “protecting” jobs and the economy….

    …and most of those centers are run like banana republics…

    Thanks for the comic relief of the day…as if rural areas are such bastions of integrity and good government…the problem has more to do with one-party rule rather than something that supposedly only happens in urban areas…

  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just Me:

    and most of those centers are run like banana republics,

    If you want to see how to run a banana republic, come to my neck of the woods. St. Louis is a model of democracy compared to some of the towns around here.

    Also, the “urban center” that is the St.Louis metropolitan area? A considerable swath of it is so red, it bleeds.

  37. Geek, Esq. says:

    @Curtis:

    I’m sure Senators Warner and Kaine would fail to agree with your assessment that Virginia leans Republican, as would the slates of electors for Barack Obama from 2008 and 2012.

    Virginia may lean Republican in off-year elections, but it is not a Republican-leaning state in national elections.