How to siphon votes away from blue states, Virginia edition

January 24, 2013

To recap: In most states, presidential elections are fairly simple. Whichever candidate garners the most votes wins all of that state’s electoral votes. There are two tiny exceptions (Maine and Nebraska), but that’s typically how it works. President Obama won a majority of votes in Virginia in 2012, so he got all 13 of its electoral votes and carried the state.


The future of the electoral college?

But some lawmakers are now trying to change that. On Wednesday, a subcommittee in the Virginia state Senate approved a bill, authored by Sen. Bill Carrico (R) that would split the state's electoral votes between different candidates.

Here's how this would work: Each presidential candidate would get a certain number of electoral votes depending on how many congressional districts he or she carried in Virginia. On top of that, an extra two electoral votes would be awarded to whichever candidate carries the most districts in total.

As Dave Weigel points out, this would have altered the results of the 2012 election. Barack Obama, recall, carried Virginia with 51 percent of the popular vote. But under Carrico's system, Obama would have received just four electoral votes while Romney would have received nine. In other words, Obama would have received 150,000 more ballots and still lost the state decisively.

Not surprisingly, there are a plenty of objections this scheme, but let's go with the two big ones:

1) The political objection. Democrats argue that this is a pure partisan power grab by the GOP. That's certainly possible, although note that Virginia was a deep-red state for five decades before Obama came along in 2008, so this plan could conceivably end up hurting Republicans in the future.

But there's also the precedent to consider. It's true that splitting Virginia's electoral votes wouldn't have affected the 2012 election at all. Obama would have still won. But it's worth noting that GOP lawmakers in other blue states — including Pennsylvania and Ohio — have been mulling similar changes to their electoral colleges. (Note that Democrats can't really retaliate: West Virginia is the only red state where they control the legislature.)

These tweaks could add up: As Ari Berman points out, if Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania had all adopted this vote-splitting plan, and nothing else had changed, Romney would have garnered 270 electoral votes and won the presidency.

2) The principled objection. What the Virginia legislature is contemplating isn't illegal. States can divvy up their electoral votes however they want. Nebraska and Maine both do it (although in practice these states rarely end up splitting their votes). What's different here is that Virginia is a big state with heavily gerrymandered districts.

Gerrymandering, after all, helps explain why Obama won a majority of votes in Virginia but only carried four of its eleven congressional districts. Most of the state's Democratic voters are packed into a small handful of districts (right). This isn't unusual. Politicians in many states and in both parties engage in this sort of line-drawing. But under a plan like Carrico's, presidential elections would now be heavily affected by whichever state parties happen to be in power when district maps are redrawn. Gerrymandering would influence presidential races, too.

Now, it's not clear yet that Carrico's bill will actually pass the full Virginia state Senate or the House of Delegates — at least Republican thinks it's a dubious plan, and her opposition could be enough to kill the bill. But if it does pass, some observers are wondering if a scheme like this could ultimately undermine the whole electoral college system. "Gerrymandering the [electoral college]," notes Josh Barro, "will turn it into an unstable institution that will eventually have to be abolished."

Further reading:

--Dave Weigel dissects Carrico's argument that his bill would give Virginia's rural districts a greater voice.

--Tim Noah's argument for abolishing the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote.

--The last round of redistricting is likely to keep the House in Republican hands for the next decade.

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