Whose Ox is That Being Gored??

Democrats and liberal pundits are all up in arms about proposals emerging in some states that would allocate the electoral vote by Congressional District. The reason they oppose such a measure is strictly partisan: given the current effects of gerrymandering (largely by Republicans at the state level), it would disadvantage Democrats. Why do I think that if Democrats had been doing the gerrymandering, the whole concept would be less offensive?

Let’s review the current situation and our options.

The Electoral College–whatever its original purposes or merits–is outmoded. It is certainly inconsistent with our current goal of “one person, one vote.” But eliminating it will require a constitutional amendment, and that would take years and be very difficult. Currently, most states award all of their electoral votes (a number equal to the number of Senators and Representatives from that state) to the candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote in that state–no matter how thin the victory.

In red Indiana, that means that voters who opted for Barack Obama in November might just as well have flushed those votes down the toilet. Ditto New York voters who preferred Mitt Romney.  Winner take all effectively erases the votes cast for the loser, even if that loss was by a mere fraction.

The Constitution permits each state to decide how its electoral votes will be allocated, and two states–Maine, and (I think) Nebraska–have long allocated them by congressional district, awarding the district vote to the winner of that district and giving the two additional votes to the candidate who wins statewide. Since congressional districts are supposed to be roughly equal in population, the result is an allocation that more closely approximates the breakdown of the vote statewide.

The kicker here, of course, is gerrymandering. Not surprisingly, the sudden interest in electoral fairness is being seen in states where the Republicans have been most successful in rigging the boundaries in their favor. But only the most naive among us would expect a different result if the situation were reversed; Democrats have been just as eager to draw squiggly lines that benefit them when they’ve had the power to do so.

If we really want a system in which everyone’s vote actually counts, a system that doesn’t give politicians of either party the opportunity to game the system, there is an easy fix: allocate the electoral vote to reflect the popular vote.

If candidate A gets 55% of the popular vote and candidate B gets 45%, allocate the electoral votes 55/45.

We talk a lot about the importance of voting, and each election we hear that “every vote counts.” That may be true of votes for local offices (unless gerrymandering has been at work at the local level), but with respect to our votes for President, it’s bull-hockey. Under our present system, red votes in blue states don’t count. Blue votes in red states don’t count.

If we really cared about electoral fairness, and not just about comparative advantage–not just about whose ox is gored–we’d allocate the electoral vote to represent the actual voice of the people.


  1. Good points, Sheila……clearly the Constitution assigns the manner in which a state’s electors are chosen (only specifying the number….number of Representatives plus number of Senators) to the state legislatures. [Interesing point as to whether or not this means that this would be an ordinary piece of state legislation involving the state’s Governor]. There’s not even anything requiring popular votes for the electors……unlike the amendment that changed the way in which Senators are elected. So our Hoosier lawmakers could specify that someone named Sheila Kennedy was to appoint the state’s Electors….though I’m not holding my breath. (:

    The courts have tended to stay out of the political gerrymandering businesses except to the degree that the “one person one vote” rules aren’t grossly exceeded, or there is some kind of discriminatory impact under the Voting Rights Act. It would seem that so long as a Congressional district otherwise met those tests, the fact that Presidential Electors were involved wouldn’t change that equation.

    Hopefully within each state the furor raised by the voters at their lawmakers for adopting such a scheme would make it short-lived…..but no guarantees.

  2. Thanks Prof K
    I think your point is very valid but I don’t think that is one of the plans being put foreward. They are just trying to cook the books.

  3. If the Republican plans were implemented in all states, then it might be fair. But rigging the rules, only in some states is a perversion of fairness. The GOP tried to suppress the vote. That didn’t work well enough. So now they have to find a way to win with fewer votes. Look at Pennsylvania. Under these plans the GOP would have received 15 out of 20 EVs but with only 47% of the popular vote. That’s not fair, is it? Frankly, I think it’s time to get rid of the electoral college

  4. It is PAST time to get rid of the electoral college. And your point about uniformity is correct–unless all states apportion the same way, the opportunity for mischief is huge.

  5. Meh, this is a bipartisan problem that in reality benefits both sides. With winner-take-all vote tallying national candidates can focus their money and efforts in states that truly matter and take the rest for granted. What Democrat in their right mind wants to step foot in Topeka, Kansas? What Republican wants to step foot in Harlem? Unfortunately, I agree that this comes more at the expense of the citizenry than anybody else. For example, if we had swing states in the Southwest the border would have been closed decades ago.

    Last time I checked something like 85% of all congressional districts were considered gerrymandered, and normally there’s a lot of open bickering but closed-door consensus/quid pro quo, at least that’s always how I’ve been told the game works. Some districts are extremely secure and they’re more or less bequeathed (Andre Carson, and very obviously Todd Rokita getting the 4th when Steve Buyer I think it was left), and the ones they agree to leave up for grabs are just that.

    As far as the “voter suppression” thing, I can understand Pennsylvania wanting their own ID law. I’ve never heard of multiple precincts in the same city having 100% turnout voting 100% for one candidate…

  6. Sheila, I have to agree with you that the Electoral College has probably outlived its usefulness, but to argue that each side gerrymanders so it is no big deal. Sorry, Democrats still believe they are in a fist fight and the Republicans have loaded up their assault weapons.

    Tom Delay engineered a second redistricting once Republicans took control in Texas. Democrats were urged to reciprocate (a few gerrymandered districts isn’t the same as scorched earth). Imagine that district where Henry Hyde and Dennis Hastert found themselves both in Jesse Jackson’s district. The Democrats in ‘blue’ states felt it was inappropriate. They did nothing to retaliate. To say that if Democrats could they would do the same thing is speculation to make this seem innocent instead of the bold power grab that it is — like eliminating At-Large Council seats because NOW they are won by Democrats.

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