THE BLOG

Stealing the White House One Gerrymander at a Time

01/28/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

As the saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them. Or, if it's 2013 and you're the Republican party, if you can't beat them, change the rules of the game so you can at least give yourself a shot.

After President Obama swept all seven "toss-up" battleground states in the 2012 election, Republicans in Pennsylvania and Virginia, cheered on by national leaders of the party like RNC Chief Reince Priebus, have proposed bills to rig the way that electoral votes are counted in these states to favor a Republican candidate. Currently, the winner of the statewide vote takes all state electoral votes (except in Nebraska and Maine, neither of which offer a large number of electoral votes like larger battleground states). Under the system being proposed by Republicans, electoral votes would be allocated by congressional district, so that whichever presidential candidate received more votes in a given congressional district would win one electoral vote for that district. In Pennsylvania, the winner of the state popular vote would then be awarded two additional electoral votes. However, it's even worse in Virginia, where those two extra electoral votes would be awarded to the candidates who won the most districts in total. It might sound complicated, but when you play it out, it's clear that this is an affront to democracy.

An argument could be made that if all states allocated their electoral votes this way (don't hold your breath if you're waiting for Republican-controlled Texas to move towards this kind of system), it would be more fair than the current system. The problem with that hypothetical is that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts in state after state has assured that districts are not representative of these states as a whole. Democrats have been packed in a few districts to assure the maximum number of Republican congressmen. It's the same reason that while nationally, Democrats received 1.1 million more votes than Republicans in congressional races, Republicans still enjoy a 33-seat margin in the House. Republicans are even bragging about it -- the Republican State Leadership Committee put out a report last week entitled "How a Strategy of Targeting State Legislative Races in 2010 Led to a Republican U.S. House Majority in 2013." And as a ThinkProgress post lays out:

The report credits gerrymandered maps in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin with allowing Republicans to overcome a 1.1 million popular-vote deficit. In Ohio, for instance, Republicans won 12 out of 16 House races "despite voters casting only 52 percent of their vote for Republican congressional candidates." The situation was even more egregious to the north. "Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress."

In 2012, President Obama won Virginia with just over 51 percent of the vote. But under the Republican-proposed system of allocating votes, Obama would have received just four electoral votes while Mitt Romney would have received nine. Raise your hand if that sounds right. No one?

President Obama won Pennsylvania by 5.2 percent -- under the original plan proposed in Pennsylvania that would have meant 13 electoral votes for Romney and seven for Obama

There are other states where Republicans control both chambers and the governorship where this kind of bill could move forward. If Wisconsin had adopted the Virginia plan, Romney would have won 7 electoral votes and Obama would have taken only 3 electoral votes despite the fact that Obama won by 7percent of the statewide popular vote. In Florida, where Obama won 50percent - 49percent, the electoral vote allocation would have been Romney 18, Obama 11. Put simply - this doesn't pass the sniff test. As Ari Berman pointed out for The Nation, if Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania had all adopted this vote-splitting plan for the 2012 election, Romney would have garnered 270 electoral votes and won the presidency.

It's important to note that Republicans in Pennsylvania tried to pass a similar law prior to the 2012 election. The same state senator pushing the bill in 2013, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, introduced the same bill in 2011. Understandably, the bill was met with strong resistance from Democrats, but that wasn't the reason the bill died on the vine. The most effective pushback came from GOP congressmen who were wary of driving more Democratic campaign resources into close congressional districts. For example, Republicans representing the swing suburbs of Philadelphia were rightfully concerned that Democrats would move resources from safe, urban districts to suburban districts in an attempt to pick up a handful of extra electoral votes, making those Republican congressmen more vulnerable in their seats.

Take a look at the vote share President Obama won in congressional districts won by Republicans. The data shows at least 38 districts where Obama won 47 percent of the vote or more. If states move toward allocating electoral votes by congressional district, that's at least 38 incumbent Republican congressmen who can expect an influx of Democratic spending in their districts because they offer a chance for the Democratic presidential nominee to pick up electoral votes. We can be sure those GOP congressmen won't be happy about that idea.

Beyond that, the system would present a new problem for the GOP -- increased scrutiny of their gerrymandered state maps. This change could be subject to DOJ scrutiny and potential legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act, which in part requires that changes not limit the voting strength of minorities. If the suggested changes to allocating electoral votes happened in, say, Virginia, where the majority of the African American population is packed into four congressional districts, African American voters would go from being able to elect a presidential candidate with 13 electoral votes to only awarding that candidate four electoral votes. Again, the legalities are complicated, but the result is not -- a move to rig the Electoral College could mean the end, once and for all, to the current Republican gerrymandered congressional maps.

Will it work? Unclear. But be aware and make your opposition known. Attend hearings at the state capitol if possible. This is a stealth attack on democracy until voters expose it.

America Votes and its partners are making all progressive groups in these vulnerable states aware of this pending legislation and will be pushing back like we did in Pennsylvania in 2011. As if severely gerrymandered congressional districts didn't undermine our democracy enough, we won't stand for partisan legislators seeking to add insult to injury by forever skewing election results.

In the meantime, maybe Republicans will realize that the smart way out of the political wilderness is not by rigging the Electoral College, but by making honest assessment of their party priorities against the backdrop of changing demographics around them.