The Coming Republican Coup or The End of Democracy As We Know It or If You Can’t Win on Your Ideas, Change the Rules
When George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, we all had to recall that little nugget of knowledge from our middle school social studies class when we learned that it was possible for a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote and, with it, the presidency. It’s happened several times in our history, but prior to 2000, the last time was 1888 (and before that 1876 and 1824). We accepted the 2000 results because that is what the Constitution provides; however, I think that the result made some people at least begin to think about whether the possibility of an electoral college winner and popular vote loser was a good system.
But that was just an aberration, right?
Well, maybe not. At least not if Republicans get their way. And, if they do, I don’t think that I’m going too far out on a limb by suggesting that a Democratic popular vote winner will almost certainly always lose the electoral vote. Our system of a democratic republic will be destroyed by, essentially, a Republican coup.
What am I talking about, you ask?
Remember that in all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the winner of the popular vote in that state is awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. Thus, here in Indiana, Mitt Romney won the 2012 popular vote and received all 9 of Indiana’s electoral votes. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama won the popular vote and received all 20 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. It’s also worth noting that the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections (Bush’s defeat of Kerry being the exception, dating all the way back to 1988).
It seems that Republicans don’t like this losing streak, especially when they look at demographics (i.e., younger voters trend Democratic as do growing minority populations). Thus, Republicans have, in essence, three choices: 1) They can try to do a better job of convincing voters that their ideas are better, 2) they can change their ideas to match what voters want, or 3) they can change the rules to make it easier for them to win without getting additional votes.
It seems that many Republicans have elected (pun intended) option 3. “Win with less” you could coin it.
First, recall the efforts that Republican-led legislatures have taken to suppress votes among certain groups of citizens via the passage of voter ID laws, limitation on early voting or voter centers, refusal to expand voting hours, disproportionate allocation of voting machines, purges of voting rolls, and so forth. In each of these examples, the goal is not to get more Republican votes, but to reduce the number of Democratic votes. I’ve seen estimates recently, for example, that as many as 200,000 voters didn’t cast ballots in Florida because of long lines and limited early voting.
But even after taking those measures, Republicans still lost. By a lot. President Obama was re-elected with approximately 5,000,000 more votes than Mitt Romney and an electoral vote margin of 126.
Hmm. So how can Republicans fight this trend? If demographics are against you and you can’t suppress enough of the other side’s votes, how can you hope to win?
Well, you could change (or at least moderate) your positions. Um, nope. Not the current Tea Party-dominated GOP.
So what do they do?
Change the rules.
And that’s just what Republican legislators are proposing in a number of states that voted for President Obama but which have Republican dominated legislatures. Like Pennsylvania. And Virginia. And Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Now, before I get into just what the rule change would be, let’s remember why we have situations in which a state could be “blue” but have a Republican legislature: Gerrymandering. On the state level, it’s often even worse than at the federal level. State districts are drawn to insure that the party drawing the maps retains control. Here in Indiana, the new maps drawn by the Republican legislature after the 2010 census virtually guaranteed that in 2012 a Republican supermajority would be elected in both houses. And that’s just what happened. In other states it may be even worse. Again, let’s look to Pennsylvania which elected a Republican governor in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, but which voted for President Obama and a slate of Democratic candidates for statewide office in 2012. Recall the data presented in my post Does Legislative Representation Properly Represent the Votes of the Electorate? (Part 2) showing that Democrats won all but one statewide race by at least 5 points. More importantly, Democrats also won the statewide vote for the US House of Representatives, but because of the 2010 gerrymander, the Democratic candidates only won 5 of 18 seats in the House. Yes, you read that correctly.
With that in mind, let’s look at the rules change that Republican legislatures in “blue” states are considering (and note that they are not considering changes like this in states that reliably vote for the Republican candidate and note also that there aren’t any “red” states with a Democratic legislature).
The Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to award electoral votes. That is why Maine and Nebraska are able to use a different system. The Republican-controlled blue states are considering adopting the Maine/Nebraska electoral system, perhaps with an added “twist” to give Republicans a few extra bonus votes.
How would this work? Simple. Instead of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate that won the state’s popular vote, the state’s electoral votes would be awarded on the basis of Congressional district. In other words, if the popular vote in a particular Congressional district went to the Republican candidate, that candidate would get the electoral vote representing that Congressional district. (Other proposed systems base the award of electoral votes on the proportion of the popular vote statewide, rather than by district.)
Go back to Pennsylvania for a moment. Remember that President Obama won 52% of the popular vote and thus received all 20 of the state’s electoral votes. But if the rule change that I just described were adopted, we’d have to look, not at the statewide popular vote, but at the popular vote by Congressional district. In that case, President Obama would have received only 5 electoral votes and Mitt Romney would have received the other 13!
So what about Pennsylvania’s other 2 electoral votes (5+13=18 but Pennsylvania has 20)? Here’s the neat trick for those “bonus votes” I mentioned. So far, the states that have experimented with awarding electoral votes based on Congressional district voting (again, that’s Maine and Nebraska) have awarded their extra 2 electoral votes (remember each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to the number of members of the House plus Senate, so each state has 2 more votes than Congressional districts, representing the 2 senators) to the candidate who won the statewide popular vote. Thus, if Pennsylvania followed that model, President Obama would have received those 2 votes because he won the popular vote. But the Republican legislature in Virginia figured out a way to prevent even those votes from going to the Democratic candidate. Instead of awarding the “senate” electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, the rule change that Virginia has proposed (and which other “red” states may consider) would award those 2 votes to the candidate who won the most Congressional districts in the state. Thus, if that rule were in effect in Pennsylvania, President Obama would have won 52% of the popular vote but just 25% (5 of 20) electoral votes. Does that look like democracy to you?
And guess what happens if you apply that rule not just to Pennsylvania, but also to Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin? Well, we would have just witnessed the inauguration of President Mitt Romney. (For some detailed analysis, please see Electoral College Changes Would Pose Danger for Democrats from The New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog and What The 2012 Election Would Look Like Under The Republicans' Vote-Rigging Plan from Huffington Post.)
Of course, it’s worth noting that back in 2004, when Colorado (then, a red state) had a ballot initiative to change the award of electoral votes to a proportional system (based on the percentage of the popular vote), it was Republicans who objected.
So you tell me… Is it fair to create a system in which the person who receives a majority of the votes nationally loses and where a component of that system provides that the person who receives a majority of the votes in some states may also lose those states? When you think of how our American democracy works, is that the system that comes to mind? How do you think those who are part of the majority voting for a particular candidate or party would react if their candidate regularly won the popular vote and still lost the election? How would we react if we read about that sort of electoral result in your average banana republican or fledgling democracy? We’d laugh and snicker and talk about American exceptionalism.
And note again that Republicans are not proposing these sorts of changes in states like Indiana or Texas that voted for Mitt Romney. If these rules were in place in Indiana, Romney would have won only 9 electoral votes (instead of 11), with Obama winning the other two. More importantly, in Texas, Romney would have won just 24 of the state’s 38 electoral votes. So, no, I don’t expect to see the Texas legislature take up this sort of bill anytime soon, though it is worth recalling that Texas has been to the Supreme Court to try to argue that its gerrymander that tried to dilute the Latino vote. And lost.
There are yet two further elements of this to consider.
First, let’s consider how the sponsor of the Virginia bill explained it:
Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico, R-Grayson, said the change is necessary because Virginia’s populous, urbanized areas such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Hampton Roads can outvote rural regions such as his, rendering their will irrelevant.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County), said he wants to give smaller communities a bigger voice. “The last election, constituents were concerned that it didn’t matter what they did, that more densely populated areas were going to outvote them,” he said.
“This is coming to me from not just my Republican constituents,” added Carrico, whose district voted overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. “I want to be a voice for a region that feels they have no reason to come to the polls.”
Think about what Sen. Carrico is really saying. Those “urban” voters (and just what, do you suppose, he really means by “urban”? If you’ve been paying attention you should realize that is simply a dog whistle term for “black”) can “outvote” rural voters. Hmm. Imagine that. One area has more voters and thus casts more votes! So, we need to dilute those votes in favor of rural areas with fewer voters. Hey, that’s what he said! He wants to “give smaller communities a bigger voice.” Why not just provide that votes from certain regions only count … hmm … what ratio should we use? … I know! … make votes from certain regions count just three-fifths as much as regions that don’t have an “urban” population. That would be fair and democratic, right?
The other point to recall goes back to the GOP’s efforts at voter suppression. Those efforts have even included attempts to overturn or repeal the Voting Rights Act. Now just imagine if these changes are made and a Republican wins the Presidency with a minority of the votes but is then able to appoint Republican judges who would be willing to overturn the protections of the Voting Rights Act or to decide that there is nothing wrong with poll taxes and so forth. It would be before those same judges that challenges to excessive gerrymandering would be heard … and likely rejected. We could be in jeopardy of creating a permanent ruling party and permanent political under-represented class.
If Republicans enact a system whereby a minority is likely to win and where the rules aren’t uniform, then what we’d really be looking at is simply a undemocratic coup d’etat that would make a mockery of what our system represents: Fairness. Thankfully, at least a few Republicans in some of those states have begun to recognize that these rule changes might be good for Republicans but that they’d be bad for democracy. We need to let other legislators know that if they want to win, they need to do so on the basis of their ideas, not on the basis of unfair rules or gerrymandered maps. We need our system to be fair.