Type to search

Republicans Aren’t Rigging The Electoral College

Bloomberg View Memo Pad Politics

Republicans Aren’t Rigging The Electoral College

Voting provisional ballot

Nov. 12 (Bloomberg View) — No, Republicans aren’t going to use their triumphs in state legislative and governor’s races to rig the Electoral College. Let’s try to kill this one off right away — and not just because, as Dave Weigel reports at Bloomberg Politics, Republicans don’t seem to have much interest in it, aside from a single National Review blog post.

There are three things to know about rigging the Electoral College.

First, it would be perfectly legal for Republicans in Democratic-leaning states to change the way these votes are accumulated there. Here’s how they would do it:

Currently almost every state has a winner-takes-all allocation of electoral votes. When Barack Obama narrowly won Ohio in 2012, he received all of Ohio’s 18 votes. But each state is free to choose how to divvy up theirs as they please. Nebraska and Maine already do it by congressional district, although it usually doesn’t make any difference. The idea would be for Republicans in office in Democratic-leaning states to switch to a plan that would split the votes in those states.

For example, a proportional system in 2012 in Ohio would presumably have given Obama only 10 electoral votes and Mitt Romney 8. Or a plan that allocated one electoral vote for winning each congressional district, plus two votes for winning the state, would also effectively split the tally.

Doing this in a bunch of Democratic-leaning states, while preserving winner-take-all in Republican-leaning ones, would strongly bias the system toward Republicans. If Ohio goes for Democrats, for example, and Georgia (16 votes) goes for Republicans, the Democrats win an 18-16 advantage, but if Ohio has a proportional system, then the same voting would produce a 24-10 Republican landslide.

The second thing to know is that such tactics would be despicable. A horrible thing to do. Winning elections and then changing the rules to prevent the other side from ever winning again is what destroys democratic government.

But just because we can say this is technically and constitutionally possible doesn’t mean it will happen. It’s as relevant as saying that any party could put five Supreme Court justices in place who would be willing to approve laws restricting the vote to people who have purchased at least three Newt Gingrich novels (or, alternatively, people who can recite passages from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States).*

The third thing to know is the most important: It won’t happen, just as I predicted the last time these ideas were bandied about. That’s because what’s good for the national Republican Party as a whole — reducing the damage Michigan or Ohio would cause for their candidate in the Electoral College — is bad for those states, including the Republican Party in those states.

Their large Electoral College clout is what makes them valuable presidential prizes, which means candidates devote resources to them, both in electioneering efforts and in pandering to their interests. Why would presidential candidates promise Youngstown or Flint more federal largesse if winning Ohio and Michigan no longer nets a large electoral vote prize?

What’s more, the logic of using electoral victories in this way requires Republican governors and state legislators to believe that their wins were flukes — that they have to act now before they are booted from office the next time. People don’t think that way! Instead, you can be sure those winners right now believe that their states are trending Republican and that dividing the Electoral College vote would backfire against them when Republicans win the state in 2016.

And that’s without crediting Republican legislators with having any commitment to democratic values, decency and fair play. Sure, they’ll work voting rules to give their party an edge, but there’s a huge difference between “targeted inconvenience” and a flat-out rigging of the game.

So, yes, Electoral College rigging is possible and would be monstrous. But it’s also low on the list of things to worry about.

*As Matt Yglesias notes, it’s also constitutional for states to decide not to hold a proper election at all and for a state legislature to award its electoral votes to any candidate it chooses. “Constitutional” isn’t, that is, the test of whether something is democratic.

Photo: Vox Efx via Flickr

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!




  1. toto November 13, 2014

    Electoral College vote scheme now in play for Michigan lame-duck session
    Posted By Ryan Felton on Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    1. FireBaron November 14, 2014

      Never doubt what Republican legislators or congressmen will attempt in Lame Duck sessions.

  2. toto November 13, 2014

    Today’s news is that Rep. Pete Lund, a Michigan Republican state lawmaker is introducing a bill for Michigan to change the way it awards its electoral college votes in the presidential election.

    Instead, The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws for awarding electoral votes.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important
    than those of the voters in 80% of the states, like Michigan, that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the enacting states.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not
    mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the
    President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In virtually every of the 39 states surveyed, overall support has been in the 70-80% range or higher. –
    in recent or past closely divided battleground states, in rural states, in
    small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

    Obvious partisan machinations like Lund’s should add support for the National Popular Vote movement. If the party in control in each state is tempted every 2, 4, or 10 years (post-census) to consider rewriting election laws with an eye to the likely politically beneficial effects for their party in the next presidential election, then the National Popular Vote system, in which all voters across the country are guaranteed to be politically relevant and treated equally, is needed now more than ever.

    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


    1. dana becker November 14, 2014

      Right. Then all they have to do is own all the voting machines and change the votes to to their guy with no paper ballots to verify. Perfect.

      1. toto November 14, 2014

        The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes maximizes the incentive and opportunity for fraud, mischief, coercion, intimidation, confusion, and voter suppression. A very few people can
        change the national outcome by adding, changing, or suppressing a small number of votes in one closely divided battleground state. With the current system all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state. The sheer magnitude of the national popular vote number, compared to individual state vote totals, is much more robust against manipulation.

        National Popular Vote would limit the benefits to be gained by fraud or voter suppression. One suppressed vote would be one less vote. One fraudulent vote would only win one vote in the return. In the current electoral system, one fraudulent vote could mean 55 electoral votes, or just enough electoral votes to win the presidency without having the most popular votes in the country.

        The closest popular-vote election count over the last 130+ years of American history (in 1960), had a nationwide margin of more than 100,000 popular votes. The closest
        electoral-vote election in American history (in 2000) was determined by 537 votes, all in one state, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

        For a national popular vote election to be as easy to switch as 2000, it would have to be two hundred times closer than the 1960 election–and, in popular-vote terms, forty times closer than 2000 itself.

        Which system offers vote suppressors or fraudulent voters a better shot at success for a smaller effort?

    2. Allan Richardson November 14, 2014

      If Lund is indeed in favor of the National Popular Vote movement, as the wording of your first two paragraphs implies, this would make him part of the solution, not part of the problem. In that case, your later reference to “partisan machinations like Lund’s” would be puzzling.

      Is it possible that you omitted the details of WHAT change Lund wants to make in your first paragraph? That he wants to go with the one-per-gerrymandered-district-plus-two-per-state plan? Although it sounds more likely, the writing is fuzzy. In other words, is Lund the robber that the cops want to stop, or is he the cop who wants to stop the robbery?

      I agree that, since a national popular vote makes the most sense but has almost no chance of passage as a Constitutional Amendment, this movement is an excellent back-door way of achieving this reform. Basically, UNTIL it is passed in essentially identical form by 270 electoral votes’ worth of states, it has no effect. Once it is in effect, whoever wins the national popular vote will get 270 (or more) from the NPV states, plus whatever he/she can get from the remaining states; the other candidate(s) will only get whatever they get from the remaining states, which would never reach 270.

      As it is, sure-blue states like California and sure-red states like Texas (so far) are mostly ignored by both parties except as fund raising states, regardless of their populations of voters, since no amount of campaigning will change their electoral votes, while the state which could go either way (FLORIDA, for one) receive all the attention, to swing their votes toward one party or another. So the non-battleground states with large populations, such as California, were the first to pass NPV bills.

      One footnote to the 2000 recount debacle in Florida was that, if the SCOTUS had not stopped the recounts, the Republican majority in Florida was preparing to pass a bill for the ad hoc purpose of designating the state’s electoral votes to Bush/Cheney (hopefully only for that year, but forever is not out of the question for that bunch), essentially voiding the election which had already been completed (and possibly future ones in Florida)!

      1. toto November 14, 2014

        No. I did not mean to say Lund is in favor of National Popular Vote.

        Lund is proposing dividing Michigan’s electoral votes.

  3. Stuart November 13, 2014

    I think you underestimate Republican dishonesty.

    1. Daniel Jones November 13, 2014

      Republican methodology is to do whatever the hell they want when in charge then let Democrats get into office to bail them out and take the blame just as the crash comes.

      1. Allan Richardson November 14, 2014

        Better yet, from their viewpoint, let Democrats get just the more visible seats of power (i.e. the White House), use the ones the GOP still controls to limit what he can do, and then criticize the President for being ineffective (i.e. at stopping THEM when they have the votes and/or committee chairs and/or agenda control to deprive him/her of the legal POWER to stop them).

  4. pjm19606 November 14, 2014

    The entire process is UNDEMOCRATIC but the stupid American electorate reveres it for some strange reason. Utterly stupid. Guess this is why this nation never properly funds education.

  5. dana becker November 14, 2014

    Please the optics have not stopped them from any of their horrible policies being implemted,

  6. dana becker November 14, 2014

    They will do what ever it takes, lie, cheat, steal to get all three branches so they can finally implement the Koch and John Birch agenda.

  7. highpckts November 14, 2014

    Republicans have a proven track record of doing and saying anything to hold power.

  8. Terry Allen November 14, 2014

    “Winning elections and then changing the rules to prevent the other side from ever winning again is what destroys democratic government.”

    Sorry, I must have missed that part where the Republicans had any interest in democratic government in the first place.

    The truth, I think, is that Republicans have known for years that they’ll never “win on the issues” (i.e., get a majority of voters to sympathize with them). This midterm proves that. They had minority support, and they got their minority to the polls.

    1. dtgraham November 14, 2014

      I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this article. Pollyanna Bernstein’s whole premise is:

      i) such tactics are despicable and horrible and the mere optics are enough to prevent the GOP from ever doing it.
      ii) rigging the game is an admission that you may not win the next time around and “people just don’t think that way.”

      They’ve already rigged the federal Congress into the next decade and possibly beyond. Through the same gerrymandering, they’ve done likewise with many of the state legislatures that they captured in 2010. They’re already in the process of rigging the Presidential electoral college results starting with Michigan. They understand that most people don’t pay close attention to these things and optics have never stopped them in the past.

  9. MichelleRose3 November 14, 2014

    I cannot believe the level of naivete in this article. The Republicans won’t do despicable things, eh? Like hell they won’t. Mr. Bernstein, are you not aware of the Republican National Party’s publicly stated intent to permanently seize all power in this country? I believe that is called “tyranny.” I think it’s “anti-democratic” too, but gee, civics class was so looong ago…

    I have but one response to this article: Bullshit. Bernstein, you’d better re-read what Karl Rove has PUBLICLY said. In fact, you should re-read every single damn policy statement the RNC and its carrion-fly advisers have said for the last ten years. They aren’t going to play by the rules and you’re a damn fool for believing that they will.

    Bernstein, get your head out of the sand and go do your homework. And don’t ever, ever assume, for ANY reason whatsoever, that the Republicans are nice normal Americans. You’re better off pretending a full-grown Bengal tiger is just an oversized kitty-cat. Nice kitty. Go on, pet the kitty. Don’t mind the six-inch fangs.

    1. dtgraham November 14, 2014

      Jonathan must have fell down and hit his head or something.

      1. MichelleRose3 November 14, 2014

        DT, if he’d been paying attention, he might have realized that gerrymandering alone is irrefutable evidence that the RNC is planning complete and permanent domination of our government. Bernstein is a perfect example of the bewildering (and utterly nauseating) trend among Dems to “make nice” with the conservatives in the hopes that they will return the favor. Why should they? They have the upper hand, they know it, and they don’t give a damn about the law, the morality of their actions or the putative Constitutional basis for their behavior. The RNC, the Tea Party, in fact, all conservatives have but one agenda in the long run: permanent rule. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to wake up one day and find that someone has stolen the sidewalks in front of their house and there’s no one left to complain to about it.

  10. Allan Richardson November 14, 2014

    Bernstein’s naivete in claiming Republicans would not change state election laws to cheat because it wouldn’t look good (so we cheated? so sue us, we own the courts!), or because they hope to win honestly next time (is poker a game of chance? not the way I play it!), is amusing. He has, however, come up with a very plausible reason they may not stop it: power struggles between Republican controlled states. He does point out that, although the switch to gerrymandered electoral votes would help Republicans at the national level, it would also remove those states from the “battleground” status, thus removing any influence over the campaign. We can at least hope that this is enough incentive against doing so, while trying to educate voters as to just HOW bad this is, so as to get the NVP bills passed in enough other states to counteract these moves.

  11. rothgar November 15, 2014

    The one reality in all this is that when their completely bankrupt policies crash the economy again they can go back to minority status. In 1936 there were barely enough GOP Senators to have a dinner party and very few of those were foolish enough to admit to opposing the New Deal. The next 2 GOP Presidents were Keynesians like their Democratic opponents.

    Unfortunately, there will be a lot of suffering that goes on before we reach this point. I hope we get through it.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.