Oval Office Thunderdome: Electoral Shenanigans

This could have been a headline on November 7th, 2012:

Romney Wins the Presidency 286-252 Despite Losing Popular Vote

How is this possible? It’s easy when politicians are willing to engage in trickery. Let me explain. Last week, the Virginia Senate made news by advancing Senate Bill 723. The bill is aimed at changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes in presidential elections. Currently, the winner of the popular vote statewide wins all of the state’s 13 electoral votes. In the new legislation, electoral votes would be allocated based on who won the popular vote in each congressional district, with the state’s two at large votes (based on U.S. Senate membership) allocated to the candidate who won the most congressional districts.

For example, if Candidate A wins the popular vote in 5 districts, and Candidate B wins the popular vote in 4 districts, Candidate A is awarded 7 electoral votes while Candidate B is awarded 5. It’s a pretty simple system, but it is deeply unfair, and is designed expressly for the purpose of denying the will of the majority in the next presidential election.

This new system would be fair, possibly, if all congressional districts in Virginia had proportional representations of Republican and Democratic voters, but they don’t. The vast majority of the state’s Democratic voters are crunched into 3 districts, with GOP voters spread out throughout the rest. In this past election, President Obama won 4 districts, three of them by more than 25 points, while Mitt Romney won the remainder with much more modest numbers. Statewide, Obama won the popular vote by 4 points. If Senate Bill 723 had been law during the last election, Obama would have been awarded 4 electoral votes to 9 for Romney, turning a statewide popular vote win into a 2 to 1 deficit in electoral votes. Proposing a system of allocating electoral votes that can skew the results to such an extent is ludicrous.

But that is the aim of state Republicans. They don’t want a truly representative system of allocating votes. They want their candidate to win.

This blatant attempt at stealing an election has been subject to enormous backlash over the past week, so it’s probably dead, for now. But other states are considering similar legislation — namely, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If a bill similar to 723 was law in those states during the last election, the results would have been different. In Pennsylvania, Romney would have won 15 electoral votes to Obama’s 5, despite losing the statewide popular vote. In Wisconsin, Romney would have been ahead 7 to 3, after losing the popular vote once again. In fact, if one were to extrapolate Virginia’s Senate Bill 723 to all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the last election, it turns out that in addition to the states mentioned above, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan would also award more electoral votes to Romney than to Obama, despite Romney losing the popular vote in all those states. And it’s not close. Of the six states that switch, they award 74 votes to Romney against 32 to Obama.

That massive swing in electoral votes, combined with results for the rest of the states, results in Romney winning the presidency with 286 electoral votes to Obama’s 252, despite losing the popular vote by 5 million votes. The Electoral College is already a mess, capable on its own of putting a popular vote loser into the Oval Office (see 2000), it doesn’t need any further help from mischievous lawmakers to make it a more unrepresentative method of choosing the president. If there was any more evidence needed that it is past time to do away with the Electoral College, these types of legislative maneuvers are surely enough.

More ominous for the voters of this country is the GOP’s growing reluctance to place its fate into the hands of voters. For years now they’ve tried to limit voter turnout among groups that typically vote Democratic. Those efforts have been broken by effective get out the vote programs, so now they are trying to make legitimately counted votes irrelevant. It’s shameful and disgusting. This is not democracy.

A note on how I came up with my numbers. I found presidential returns for all but 49 congressional districts online. For those districts where presidential numbers weren’t available, I layered the districts on top of county-by-county results and made a best guess. Far from scientific, I could have swung 16 electoral votes the other way and Romney still wins.