Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Republican Electoral College Plan Would Undermine Democracy
We’ve often noted here that the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato and his ace team of political analysts and contributors are not just the most perceptive group of analysts on the American scene, but among the most accurate when it comes to forecasting elections. They’re the anti-Dick-Morris. And the latest edition of Sabato’s Crystal Ball has a warning: the GOP’s plans to rig the electoral college (basically wiping away elections have been held in this country with all but a few exceptions) would undermine democracy.
Here’s Sabato’s lead in but you can tell by it how he views the plan:
Republicans are struggling to right their ship after the defeat of 2012. The unfavorable demographic trends for the GOP that we describe in our new book, Barack Obama and the New America, have sunk in, and the party knows it must do something. We have solicited ideas ourselves, believing that it is vital for America to have vigorous party competition. You will see some of those ideas, offered by our readers and Twitter colleagues, here. But nestled among the constructive ideas is a truly rotten one, the proposal to fix and game the Electoral College to give a sizable additional advantage to the Republican nominee for president.
We have asked Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, to examine the proposal and outline its likely effects. As we suspected, it would permit a GOP nominee to capture the White House even while losing the popular vote by many millions. This is not a relatively small Electoral College “misfire” on the order of 1888 or 2000. Instead, it is a corrupt and cynical maneuver to frustrate popular will and put a heavy thumb — the whole hand, in fact — on the scale for future Republican candidates. We do not play presidential politics with a golf handicap awarded to the weaker side.
Republicans face a choice that can best be characterized by personalizing it. A healthy, optimistic party is Reaganesque, convinced that it can win the future by embracing it, and by making a positive case for its philosophy and candidates to all Americans. A party in decline is Nixonian and fears the future; it sees enemies everywhere, feels overwhelmed by electoral trends, and thinks it can win only by cheating, by subverting the system and stacking the deck in its favor. Whose presidency was more successful, Reagan’s or Nixon’s? Which man made the Republican brand more appealing?
– Larry J. Sabato, for the editors of The Crystal Ball
And here are a few chunks of the analysis by Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist:
After losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and seeing Barack Obama sweep to a surprisingly easy reelection victory in 2012, Republican leaders and strategists are understandably worried about their party’s prospects in future presidential contests. There is no doubt that the GOP faces major challenges as a result of the nation’s shifting demographics and a growing Democratic advantage in the Electoral College.
Democratic presidential candidates have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia with a total of 242 electoral votes in all four elections since 2000, and another three states with 15 electoral votes in three of those elections. In addition, three of the five states that have voted twice for each party since 2000 — Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, with a total of 28 electoral votes — clearly appear to be trending Democratic. That gives Democrats a base of 24 states plus the District of Columbia in which they have the advantage going into the next presidential election. Those states have 285 electoral votes — 15 votes more than needed to win the presidency.
Of course there is no guarantee that Democrats will carry all of these states in 2016. That will depend on the condition of the U.S. economy and the mood of the country at that time as well as whom the parties nominate to succeed Barack Obama. But recent trends certainly look ominous for the GOP.
As the electorate continues to become less white and more liberal in its outlook on social issues, Republicans have two choices about how to improve their party’s prospects in future presidential elections. One approach would be to adopt more moderate positions on issues such as immigration, abortion, gay rights and health care in order to make their party more appealing to young people, women and nonwhites. But that strategy would risk alienating a large portion of the GOP’s current base, especially those aligned with the Tea Party movement. So rather than adopting that risky strategy, some Republican leaders appear to be opting for a different approach — changing the electoral rules to make it easier for a Republican candidate to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
Several Republican governors and state legislative leaders in key battleground states have recently expressed support for a plan to change the method of awarding their state’s electoral votes from the current winner-take-all system to one in which one vote would be awarded to the winner of each congressional district in the state and two votes would be awarded to the statewide winner. In the aftermath of the GOP’s 2012 defeat, this plan appears to be gaining momentum and was recently endorsed by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. On Wednesday, a bill to apportion electors by congressional district advanced through a subcommittee in the Virginia Senate.
The congressional district plan appears reasonable at first glance. After all, why give all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins statewide no matter how narrow that candidate’s margin? Awarding electoral votes by congressional district would seem to provide a fairer and more balanced alternative to the winner-take-all system. But there is a serious problem with this approach. Despite a superficial appearance of fairness, the congressional district plan would be profoundly undemocratic — skewing the results in favor of the party drawing the congressional district lines in a state and greatly increasing the chances of an Electoral College misfire (a victory by the candidate losing the national popular vote).
The congressional district system, if adopted for the entire nation, would give Republicans a major advantage in presidential elections. That’s because Republicans controlled the redistricting process after the 2010 census in far more states than Democrats as a result of the GOP’s big gains in the 2010 midterm elections. By drawing congressional districts that favored the GOP, Republican state legislatures and governors gave their party a big edge in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. The result was that in 2012, even though Democratic candidates outpolled Republican candidates by more than a million votes across the nation, Republicans kept control of the House by a margin of 234 seats to 201 seats.
And, at the end:
The current method of allocating electoral votes, based on a winner-take-all rule in every state except Maine and Nebraska, actually serves to closely approximate the ideal method of choosing the president in a democracy: direct popular election. Under the current system, there is a very close relationship between the outcome of the popular vote and the outcome of the electoral vote. Only once since 1888 has a president won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. That happened in 2000, but a very strong case can be made that the 2000 “misfire” was less a result of the Electoral College itself than of serious flaws in the voting process in Florida.
If we can’t have direct popular election of the president — the method that would clearly be the most democratic and the method that polls have consistently found that the large majority of Americans favor — then the next best method of choosing the president is probably the current one of awarding electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. The current system appears to minimize the chances of an electoral vote misfire in which the winner of the popular vote loses the electoral vote. In contrast, the congressional district method would greatly increase the chances of such a misfire.
Under current circumstances, the congressional district system could well result in a Republican victory even if the Democratic candidate were to win the popular vote by a substantial margin. Such a situation would undoubtedly lead to widespread questioning of the legitimacy of the election and, potentially, a public backlash against the victorious Republican candidate and the GOP itself. Before engaging in a cynical attempt to rig the electoral system, Republican leaders and strategists should consider the potential harm that their actions could do to our democratic form of government and to their own party
Prediction: the Republicans will try it…bigtime.
The questions: are a)the Democrats prepared for it? b)what will they do about it? c)what impact will this have on independent and moderate voters who may not like the electoral college but will like it even LESS if they see Republicans (again) pulling out all stops to prevent certain types of voters from going to the polls and/or fixing the system so they have a built in advantage that means they don’t have to try and offer voters a bigger tent.
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