02/05/2013 03:47 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Electoral College Shenanigans: One Possible Response

"The Secretary of the Writers' Union

had flyers distributed on Stalin Boulevard
Saying the people had frivolously
Thrown away the government's confidence
And that they could only regain it
Through redoubled work.
But wouldn't it be simpler
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?
-- German playwright Bertolt Brecht, "The Solution" ("Die Lösung"), 1953.

In this past presidential election, President Obama defeated Governor Romney by a popular vote of 65.9 million to 60.9 million. In a sane world, that would be the end of the story. But the U.S. presidential election uses the Electoral College, so the official result is 332 electoral votes to 206. It's a wacky system that ended up focusing the election on just 10 states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. Obama won all but North Carolina.

It turns out that in six of these -- Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia -- as well as Michigan (which Obama also won), Republicans control the legislature and governor's office. As an exercise of this control, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and others are considering changing the way in which electoral votes are allocated, to benefit future Republican presidential candidates. Essentially, electoral votes would be distributed to the candidate who wins the majority in each congressional district. Because Democratic votes are more concentrated and because of gerrymandering of congressional districts by these Republican-dominated legislatures (drawing lines so that Democratic voters are packed into a smaller number of districts), this approach could be very favorable to Republican candidates. (See a description of the strategy here.)

Various Huffington Post commentators have weighed in; see Terry Connelly,
Joan Fitz-Gerald, Paul Abrams, and Mark Yzaguirre. John Nichols, over at The Nation, has suggested some sensible approaches to stop this from happening. But assuming it does happen, one possible response for Democratic presidential campaigns would be to shift resources to other states, viewing the states with newly stacked decks as largely non-competitive and not worth the resources.

Another Possible Response

Instead, I now offer the following somewhat serious but also somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion for how such a strategy might be responded to. I'll use Wisconsin as my example, figuring that it would naïve to put anything past Governor Scott Walker. Let me state up front that, while I believe this response is likely legal (since nobody is being paid to vote or to vote in a particular way), it is more mockery than democracy. In truth, none of this nonsense should be legal. In a presidential election, a vote's value shouldn't depend on the location of one's home. And voters shouldn't need to be moved around like pawns in response to an opponent's strategic attack. But that's apparently where we now find ourselves, so...

There are eight congressional districts in Wisconsin. Each district has between 442,000 and 504,000 registered voters. Republicans represent five of the eight districts, and presidential results have similarly favored Republicans in those five districts.

Looking at 2012 vote totals, the Obama victory margin in the three D-leaning districts averaged 33.4 percentage points. The Romney victory margin in the five R-leaning districts averaged 8.5 percentage points. In three of those five, the margins of victory were 3.1, 4.2, and 4.4 percentage points, the equivalent of roughly 15,000 votes per district. If approximately 8,000 or 9,000 votes switched hands in each of those districts, they would shift to majority Obama.

Since cynicism has now replaced an honest valuing of democracy, perhaps the next Democratic candidate for president should use campaign resources for targeted housing "integration" (by party, but in many places this would also mean racial integration), which will help the candidate win elections and will also have beneficial side-effects, as described below.

To illustrate, if just 9,000 Democratic voters moved from Rep. Gwen Moore's safe 4th Congressional District to Rep. Paul Ryan's neighboring 1st Congressional district and supplanted a Republican voter each time (probably not feasible -- but this deck, too, could be stacked), then the 4.2 percentage-point Romney win in the 1st would shift to a narrow Obama win (this calculation assumes that all 447,732 registered voters turned out; a 70 percent turnout would require fewer reliable Democratic voters to move into the district).

This might be accomplished, for instance, through housing down-payment or rental assistance. For $4.5 million, a SuperPAC might make available to 9,000 4th District residents a $500 down payment incentive to move into the 1st District. In fact, the SuperPAC might target this benefit to past 'Obama for America' volunteers and others who have shown an inclination to vote and to vote for Democratic candidates.

(If at this point you're thinking, "My lord, have our elections devolved into this sort of farce?," you're not alone. And the heartbreaking answer is, "yes.")

(Update: Paul Ryan comes out against Electoral College tinkering.)

Assuming a total of 14 similarly narrow Republican districts in the seven states that could potentially succumb to this Republican scheme (Virginia legislators, including many Republicans, already rejected such a bill), we're talking $63 million total for moving incentives. That's admittedly a lot. To put that number in context, the Priorities USA Action pro-Obama SuperPAC spent approximately $55 million and the Obama campaign spent over $775 million. But in a close election with few electoral votes truly in play, this may in fact be the most effective way to spend that $63 million.

Will This Happen?

If any state's electoral system does end up transformed (rigged), the most obvious response from both Republicans and Democrats will be to pursue a strategy within states what they've already been pursuing between states: focusing resources on the districts that can realistically be won. But the approach I describe above is much less likely than conventional 'get out the vote' efforts. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but with only limited resources, the more conventional approach may be more cost effective. For better or worse, the conventional approach also mocks neither the current Electoral College system nor the (presumptive) new state system for allocating electors.

That said, there is another possibility to consider. The jarring part of the approach described above is the idea of subsidizing housing for voters, creating incentives to move into a given district. But monetary incentives could be taken out of the plan. Instead, each party might end up mounting "patriotic" campaigns to convince their loyalists to move into the swing districts. Think here of a motivational approach akin to Sarah Silverman's "Great Schlep". Of course, any similarities between such a micro-targeted and manipulative presidential campaign and a true democracy are minor and purely incidental.

Other Benefits

Notwithstanding the affronts of all this to our democracy, the housing-based response described above would have two important side benefits. First, the presidential campaign would be putting in play the congressional seats themselves, thus making the scheme less-than-enticing to the Republican representatives currently holding the seats in those districts. Second, by assisting approximately 126,000 families with their housing, the campaign would likely be increasing the housing integration in these communities, and racially integrated communities have lots of benefits.


If Republicans succeed in rigging the Electoral College system in any state, I would likely end up cheering on the cynical response I've outlined here. But it would be akin to half-heartedly cheering for the undersized rooster in a cock-fight: such an unscrupulous contest should never happen in the first place. Yes, let's pursue housing integration, but let's do it for reasons of our overall societal health -- not in response to Electoral College shenanigans. We can only hope that the wrongheaded and unfair proposals being floated today serve to strengthen our collective resolve to rid ourselves of the Electoral College, whichever party benefits.