President Barack Obama is beginning a second term this weekend because he captured 332 electoral votes last November, well above the required majority.
But if some Republicans had their way in changing how electoral votes are allocated, Obama might have been headed back to Chicago while Mitt Romney began his first term, despite receiving just 47 percent of the votes, nearly 5 million fewer than Obama.
The GOP idea is to allocate most electoral votes by congressional districts, rather than giving all to the statewide winner. That sounds logical, and it might be, if those congressional district lines were fairly drawn.
But coming after Republicans used substantial 2010 victories in several normally Democratic states to enact pro-GOP redistricting plans and strict voter ID laws, it looks suspiciously like another effort to rig the electoral system.
The GOP’s redistricting successes enabled Republicans to maintain their House majority, even though the Democrats got more votes. If every state awarded its electoral votes by these gerrymandered congressional districts, Romney would have won by a 276-262 margin, despite Obama’s popular vote margin, calculated David Wasserman, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s House expert.
Until now, only Nebraska, with five electoral votes, and Maine, with four, have allocated some electoral votes by congressional districts. But Reid Wilson, the editor-in-chief of National Journal’s Hotline, reported recently that concern over recent Democratic presidential successes is prompting “senior Republicans” to consider changing the electoral vote system in several large states that voted for Obama but have GOP governors and legislatures.
Just this week, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus gave the effort what appeared to be a high-level blessing.
“I think it’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at,” Priebus told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, adding such a system “gives more local control” to the states.
Republican legislators in several GOP-controlled states have introduced legislation, though it’s too early in the year to know if those efforts will succeed.
Pennsylvania Republicans, who made an abortive effort to change their system last year in what they acknowledged was an effort to help Romney, are trying again. State Rep. Bob Godshall has introduced legislation to award 18 of the state’s 20 electoral votes by congressional district, which would have given the GOP 13 more electoral votes in 2012.
State Sen. Dominic Pileggi has proposed dividing the electoral votes by the percentages of the popular vote, which in Pennsylvania would have given the GOP eight more votes.
In Michigan, state Rep. Peter Lund, chairman of the House Redistricting and Elections Commission, said he will reintroduce a bill to divide electoral votes by congressional district.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker said he was intrigued by the idea.
In these three states, the GOP won both the governorship and legislature in 2010. All backed Obama but, thanks to redistricting, elected a majority of Republican House members. As a result of these and similar efforts, the Democrats won just 201 of the 435 seats, even though they polled 1.3 million more votes.
Republican strategists have not been shy about celebrating their efforts.
In a Jan. 4 memo, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which seeks to elect state-level Republicans, said it was “no accident” Republicans held the House despite getting fewer votes.
By focusing substantial resources on the 2010 REDistricting Majority Project, “Republicans held majorities in two-thirds of the states where the state legislature played a role in the redistricting process, and the impact of that control can be seen clearly in the 113th Congress,” the group said.
Partisan redistricting is hardly new. Texas and California Democrats did it for years. But trying to affect presidential elections that way is both new and reprehensible since it could deny a substantial majority its choice for president.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.