February 25, 2013

Over the weekend, thirteen GOP Pennsylvania Senators, led by Majority Leader Domini Pileggi, introduced a new plan to redistribute electoral votes by congressional district. Under this legislation, the winner of the state’s congressional districts would receive the most electoral votes, even if she lost the popular vote. In other words, it would reward candidates for winning land, not people.

If Pennsylvania distributed its electoral votes this way in 2012, Mitt Romney would have won eight of twenty votes, on account of his strength in rural areas of the state. Indeed, if every swing state allocated its votes in this way, Romney would have won the election, which explains the sudden popularity of proposals like this in various states. In some of them, such as Virginia — which recently introduced a plan to award one electoral vote for every Congressional district — it has been abandoned.

But the idea is not dead yet. There’s the aforementioned plan in Pennsylvania. And there’s also Michigan. According to the Detroit Free Press, an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted in favor of a similar plan during the Michigan state GOP conference, despite opposition from Governor Rick Snyder:

By a 1,370-132 margin at the party convention in Lansing, GOP members approved a resolution backing a proposal from Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, to divvy-up 14 of the state’s 16 electoral votes according to which candidate got the most votes in each congressional district. The other two would go to the state-wide vote total winner.

That switch from a winner-take-all formula that has been in effect 175 years could water down the dominance Democrats have had in Michigan in presidential elections for the last 24 years.

As in other states, this is a clear attempt to make up for the party’s weakness in presidential elections, where it has to deal with a larger and more diverse electorate.

Given the high barrier for this kind of change — even in states where Republicans control the state legislature, it’s hard to pass this kind of sweeping legislation — it seems unlikely that it will go through. But the persistence of these proposals tells us something important about where the GOP stands right now.

Republican elites are rightfully concerned with figuring out how to reform the party’s message and appeal to new demographics — hence the growing support for immigration reform, and the rapid elevation of Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Success for this strategy depends on buy-in from the Republican base. But the ongoing push for right-wing initiatives at the state-level — where ordinary voters have the most influence — is a sign that little has changed for the rank-and-file.

In other words, for the Republican base, it seems, 2012 was just a temporary setback. At this point base voters don’t seem to want the party to change its policies or do anything meaningful to reach out to minorities. But there are still the realities of demographic change, which favors the Democratic Party, and the unpopularity of GOP ideas with growing segments of the electorate. And so the only path left is to change the rules of the game.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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