Republicans Should Be Careful About Changing The Electoral College

Last week, Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates floated a bill to change the state from a winner take all state in the Electoral College to one that doles out votes by Congressional district (similar to Nebraska’s).  The idea is not new.  But, Republicans should be careful about changing how states Electoral College votes are allocated.

After the 2012 election, Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan all floated the same idea.  It would have given Romney more electoral votes but he still would have lost because of Florida.

Republicans believe this will give them a systemic advantage going forward.  And why not?  After-all, according to Daily Kos’s calculations the GOP advantage in the median Congressional district is 3.4 points and Trump won more districts (230) then Romney did (226) despite losing the popular vote.  Indeed, estimates show Clinton could have won the popular vote by 5 percent and still lost the White House.

This is because the way the majority of the country’s districts are drawn is meant to maximize GOP votes.  Even in states where Democrats or courts drew the map the (Colorado and Minnesota for example) the GOP vote is better distributed than Democratic ones for reasons I have discussed in the past.

Ironically, if votes were allocated by electoral district, Clinton would have won 16 more Electoral College votes (still well below 270).  But, due to GOP dominance in Congressional districts, Republicans would maintain a strong advantage in the Electoral College.

Let’s look at some numbers here.  Clinton did not win the election despite winning the popular vote by 2.8 percent.  But, shift that margin just slightly to 3 percent and she does by taking Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.  But, now imagine a system where votes are allocated by district.  Even shifting Clinton’s national win by 3 percent does not get her to 270.  Assuming all things remain equal. Clinton would win 268 votes in a district based system but if she won by 5 percent in our current system she would have won 307.

To see a perfect example of how allocating votes by district penalizes Democrats consider three states (Virginia, Colorado and Minnesota).  Colorado and Virginia have gone blue in three state Presidential elections and Minnesota remains stubbornly blue.  But, if votes were allocated by district Democrats would lose five in Minnesota, three in Colorado and six in Virginia.  Again, due to the GOP vote being more efficiently distributed and urban packing Democrats are at serious disadvantages in these states.

Obviously Republicans are doing this to build a natural advantage in the Electoral College.  But it relies on several faulty assumptions.  First, that American politics will remain consistent.  If anything, 2016 should have taught both parties , that that is dead wrong.  For example, nobody thought Wisconsin of all states would be the tipping point state.

Secondly, if Republicans did this all at once they would gain a huge advantage.  But doing it piecemeal is more risky.  Consider that if Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio had acted they would have cost Trump votes.

Lastly, Republicans have such a built-in advantage here because they drew the lines.  But if 2018 turns out to be a decent or even good election for Democrats those lines will change by 2020 and the GOP advantage will not be so strong.  So, there are big risks with going in on this strategy as it politicizes map-drawing even more.

These thoughts should worry Republicans.  There is simply no way of knowing which party is going to win which swing state.  The parties have switched coalitions extremely quickly (as we saw in a mere eight years).  Solidly blue states became red in four years.  So Republicans run a significant risk doing it piecemeal.  That said, if they made a national concerted effort to allocate votes by district they would very likely have a strong, possibly insurmountable advantage until at least 2020.

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