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.
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.