A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried Michigan since the first George Bush did it back in 1988, seven election cycles ago. And for the GOP, the future doesn’t look much brighter than the past. In the most recent election, Barack Obama carried the state and its 16 electoral votes by a comfortable margin of 9.5 percentage points.
So what’s a losing party to do? Field a better candidate? Develop a message that voters will find more compelling? Nah. Why do things the hard way when you can “fix” the system to your advantage legislatively?
As Reid Wilson explains in National Journal, Michigan Republicans are preparing to use their control of the state Legislature to change the way in which electoral votes are awarded in their state. Rather than use the traditional winner-take-all system, they propose to award electoral votes by congressional district.
What would that mean in practice? It would mean that in 2012, Obama would have won just seven of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes, even though he carried the state very easily. Mitt Romney would have won nine electoral votes even though he lost his native state convincingly.
How could that be? Because unlike state boundaries, boundaries of congressional districts can be gerrymandered to favor one party over another. In Michigan’s case, its congressional districts have been heavily gerrymandered to maximize GOP power and minimize Democratic power, and if you use those same boundaries to award electoral votes in a presidential race, you get that same distorted outcome.
And as Wilson points out, Michigan is far from the only state where Republicans have control of the legislative process and hope to implement such changes:
Pennsylvania: Obama won the Keystone State by 5 percentage points in 2012. Again, no GOP presidential candidate has carried the state since 1988. But under the altered rules, Pennsylvania would have produced 12 electoral votes for Romney in 2012, leaving only eight for Obama, even though the Democrat carried the state by almost 300,000 votes.
Wisconsin: Republicans haven’t carried Paul Ryan’s home state since 1984, and in 2012 Obama won its 10 electoral votes by a margin of 6.7 percentage points. But under the altered system, Obama would have had to split those 10 electoral votes evenly with the loser.
Florida: Obama has now carried the state twice in a row by narrow margins. But if presidential votes tracked congressional votes, Romney would have won 17 of Florida’s 29 electoral votes under the altered system, leaving only 12 for the candidate who actually won a majority of the state’s votes.
Ohio: Obama carried the state in both 2008 and 2012. But if the rules had been changed and presidential votes tracked congressional votes, he would have won only a third of Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, giving two-thirds to the candidate who lost the state.
Virginia: Obama won the state for the second time in a row in 2012, this time by four percentage points. But under the GOP plan, his likely reward for that victory would have been just five of the state’s 13 electoral college votes.
Under the Constitution, each state has the right to determine how its electoral votes are distributed, which would make it difficult to challenge such changes legally. In fact, Maine and Nebraska already use such a system, although neither state adopted it for partisan purposes.
In addition, the congressional maps in Maine and Nebraska are not heavily gerrymandered, which makes a big difference. In states with gerrymandered maps, such a system might be vulnerable to legal challenge on the grounds that politicians were consciously trying to discount the value of votes cast by certain U.S. citizens while enhancing the value of others.
Because as Wilson reports, the GOP is pretty clear about its intent:
“If you did the calculation, you’d see a massive shift of electoral votes in states that are blue and fully [in] red control,” said one senior Republican taking an active role in pushing the proposal. “There’s no kind of autopsy and outreach that can grab us those electoral votes that quickly.”
The proposals, the senior GOP official said, are likely to come up in each state’s legislative session in 2013. Bills have been drafted, and legislators are talking to party bosses to craft strategy. Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, has briefed Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Chief of Staff Jeff Larson on his state’s proposal. The proposal “is not being met with the ‘We can’t do that’ answer. It’s being met with ‘I’ve already got a bill started,’ ” the official said.
I particularly admire the cynicism behind the admission that “there’s no kind of autopsy and outreach that can grab us those electoral votes that quickly.” In other words, why try to appeal to more voters or reassess your platform when, by legislative fiat, you can in effect all but steal electoral votes and perhaps the election itself?
The potential implications of such a change would be profound. For example, it would add another layer of incentive for politicians to gerrymander congressional districts. In addition, Ohio and other states would no longer be battleground states; instead, you’d have battleground districts, where political war would be waged intensely while surrounding congressional districts were ignored.
Overall, if the changes in question had been in place in all six states listed above, Romney probably would have won an additional 63 electoral votes. Add that to the 206 votes that he did win, and Romney has 269 votes, creating an electoral college tie with Obama.
That tie in turn would have thrown the race into the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a narrow majority thanks in part to their success at gerrymandering.
Which means that Romney, having lost the popular vote by almost four percentage points and 4.7 million votes, would today be President-elect Romney.
– Jay Bookman