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“Wrong Winners”: The Long Past And Perilous Future Of Gaming The Electoral College system

Following another bitter presidential loss, Republicans in several states are pushing for rule changes that would boost their odds in future races — essentially, switching the Electoral College allocation method in Democratic-leaning swing states from the current winner-take-all system to one that would help Republicans capture at least some electoral votes in those battlegrounds.

In the short run, of course, such changes would probably help Republicans siphon off electoral votes in states like Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But these rule changes would also make a mockery of the concept of fair elections, and harm the twin Republican principles of conservativism and federalism.

Currently, all but two states award Electoral College votes using a winner-take-all system (called the Unit Rule). The Unit Rule is not mandatory. Other methods have been used in the past, including having the state legislature hand out the electoral votes however it sees fit. Another popular alternative method, one that is currently used by Maine and Nebraska, is giving one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district.

The Unit Rule is widely used today because of its political benefits. In the early days of the republic, it was not clear which system was best. Some politicians were strong proponents of the district-based system — including Thomas Jefferson. But this philosophical position quickly gave way to expediency. When Jefferson ran for president in 1800, his native Virginia transferred over to the Unit Rule to hand Jefferson the full allotment of his home state’s votes.

In the ensuing elections, many states switched allocation methods. Eventually, the trend toward a more democratic system in the 1820s led to the phasing out of the state legislatures’ allocating votes. At the same time, politicians realized that the district system diluted the impact of a state’s vote, and prevented state lawmakers from delivering their entire electoral bounty to their preferred candidate. By 1836, all states except South Carolina used the winner-take-all method.

However, over the years, there have been occasional attempts to switch to a different plan to help various favored candidates. For instance, in 1892, Michigan switched to the district plan to help Grover Cleveland, and then switched back to the Unit Rule for the 1896 election.

Fast forward to the modern day. Since the super-tight 2000 election, there have been numerous attempts to switch the allocation methods of states. Republicans tried to loosen Democrats’ stranglehold on deep-blue California by pushing for a district-based system, which would have been devastating to Democrats. Liberals have made similar noises about revising the laws of North Carolina and Colorado. None of these plans have come fruition.

Since Obama’s landslide victory in November, all of the talk about changing the system — and there has been a lot of it — has been on the Republican side. Thanks to the GOP’s big wins in the 2010 elections, Republicans control the legislatures and the governors’ offices of a number of states that voted for Obama, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia. These states are now targets for a switch to the district-based method.

This would clearly damage Democrats’ short-term political prospects. For example, under the system proposed by Virginia, the state’s electoral votes would have gone from 13 for Obama to 9-4 in favor of Mitt Romney — because he won a bunch of congressional districts despite decisively losing the state’s popular vote.

Such rule changes would immediately nationalize state legislative elections. Thanks to their role in gerrymandering, state legislative elections are already receiving increased attention from national figures. If states started fussing with the rules of the Electoral College, this attention would skyrocket. Consider this: In the 2011 Wisconsin recalls of nine state senators, total campaign spending topped $44 million. Imagine how much would be spent if the presidency were thought to be on the line.

From the point of view of federalism, this would destroy the ideal of state governments as “laboratories of democracy.” These state legislative races would no longer focus on local issues — instead, they would be decided by national topics that have nothing to do with an average legislator’s job. We could also expect an increase in recall elections run to gain a majority in a closely divided legislature.

Gerrymandering, already a bipartisan blight on our political system, would only grow in importance. Mid-decade gerrymandering would become the norm. Essentially, every election would become an attempt to game the system.

We’ve actually seen this before. It goes on every four years, as states try to rejigger the rules, and especially the dates, of their presidential nominating contests. It is not pretty, and it is not a good way to run a system.

Another problem is with the conservative ideal of keeping the Electoral College intact. The Electoral College managed to survive the 2000 presidential debacle. Part of the reason was politics, and part of the reason was that there was a clear villain in the process, namely Florida’s botched election system. But yet another part is that whatever the merits of the complaints against the Electoral College, it’s a historic and relatively straightforward process — win a state, win its votes.

Of course, the current electoral allocation method skews attention to swing states, and ignores voters in any states that are solidly blue or red, including three of the four biggest states (California, New York, and Texas). Switching to the district-based system would result in more attention for these states’ local issues. However, the district-based system may be more likely to misfire. It would have increased Bush’s Electoral College totals in 2000, despite his losing the popular vote to Al Gore.

Indeed, the district-based system proposed by Republicans (and occasionally, in the past, Democrats) would actually be designed to increase the likelihood of “wrong winners” — someone who loses the popular vote but wins the presidency.

Can the Electoral College handle being a continual contra-indicator of the national popular vote? It is likely that repeated misfires of the Electoral College would fatally undermine the system. Eventually, if one party is specifically disadvantaged, it would have to go all-in to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote system. And at some point in the future, a party would accomplish that.

Attempts to game the Electoral College for short-term political gain may temporarily help Republican candidates. But in the long term, they would have a devastating impact on the concept of fair elections, and on the ideals of federalism and conservativism. Republicans would be well advised to consider whether the short-term pleasure is worth the long-term pain.


By: Joshua Spivak, The Week, January 25, 2013

January 28, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, Federalism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Swapping Old Folks For Poor Folks”: Lamar Alexander’s Senior Moment

I can’t read the whole thing yet, since it’s hiding behind the Wall Street Journal’s paywall, and I’m not about to subscribe. But from the headline and lede, it seems Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has taken a long stroll down memory lane by resurrecting the one-fashionable idea of a “swap” whereby currently shared federal-state governing responsibilities would be divided. In particular, he proposes that Medicaid be taken over by the feds in exchange for total assumption of responsibility for education by the states, and mentions he tried to sell the idea to Ronald Reagan back in the early 1980s.

I don’t know exactly which meetings Alexander is talking about, but as it happens, I was working for the then-chairman of the National Governors’ Association, the late Georgia Democratic Gov. George Busbee, when he was leading “federalism” discussions with the Reagan folk in 1981. Most governors at the time, regardless of party, were interested in what was called a “sorting out” agenda that would federalize some programs and devolve others; this was a favorite topic in particular for Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who like to talk about “states’ rights for liberals.” Babbitt wanted a “grand swap” in which Washington would become responsible for all health care and “welfare” programs in exchange for state assumption of transportation, education and criminal justice, areas in which they were already the major funders and policymakers. My own boss had a similar approach, but was mainly concerned to head off the kind of one-way abandonment of federal responsibility that most conservatives had in mind when they talked about “federalism.”

Whatever they told Alexander, that was pretty much the tendency of the Reaganites of the day. Reagan’s famous OMB director, David Stockman was interested in a “swap” that would have devolved cash income support, food stamps, and health care for the poor in exchange for the feds taking responsibility for the health care needs of seniors who were “dual-enrolled” in Medicaid or obtaining long-term care subsidies. It was basically a “swap” of old folks for poor folks. The governors weren’t buying it, and in any event, the Reagan administration was simultaneously pursuing a budget that would “cap” federal Medicaid payments, basically intitiating the kind of gradual shift in responsibility for the program to the states that Paul Ryan is pursuing in a more comprehensive way with his proposal to turn Medicaid into a “block grant.” As it happened, the Medicaid “cap” was one of the few budget proposals Reagan lost on in 1981.

Best as I can recall, this was the high-water mark of national Republican interest in taking over Medicaid, and it obviously was lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. It’s only gotten worse sice then. It is striking that ol’ Lamar is talking about a federal takeover of Medicaid even as he joins other Republicans in violently opposing ObamaCare, since one major feature of ObamaCare is a significant increase in federal responsibility for Medicaid (via higher match rates for new enrolees), and for the health care needs of low-income families generally.

The bottom line is that Alexander is really living in the distant past if he thinks his party will support federalization of Medicaid (unless they get the idea they can starve or abolish it). The prevailing sentiment in the GOP, as reflected in the Ryan budget, is to move towards devolution of all current federal-state programs to the states, via rapid funding cuts to non-defense discretionary programs and by turning Medicaid and food stamps into block grants (along with big funding cuts). Matter of fact, Alexander voted for the Ryan budget himself. Maybe he explained that little contradiction in the portion of his op-ed still behind the paywall. Or maybe he’s just having a senior moment.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 16, 2012

May 17, 2012 Posted by | Federalism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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