Republicans in Virginia and a handful of other battleground states are pushing for far-reaching changes to the electoral college in an attempt to counter recent success by Democrats.
In the vast majority of states, the presidential candidate who wins receives all of that state’s electoral votes. The proposed changes would instead apportion electoral votes by congressional district, a setup far more favorable to Republicans. Under such a system in Virginia, for instance, President Obama would have claimed four of the state’s 13 electoral votes in the 2012 election, rather than all of them.
Other states considering similar changes include Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which share a common dynamic with Virginia: They went for Obama in the past two elections but are controlled by Republicans at the state level.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus recently voiced support for the effort, saying it is something that “a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at.”
Sean Spicer, a Priebus spokesman, said Thursday: “For these states, it would make them more competitive, but it’s not our call to tell them how to apportion their votes.”
No state is moving quicker than Virginia, where state senators are likely to vote on the plan as soon as next week.
If successful, Virginia would become the third state to adopt the congressional district system, after Nebraska and Maine.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County), said he wants to give smaller communities a bigger voice. “The last election, constituents were concerned that it didn’t matter what they did, that more densely populated areas were going to outvote them,” he said.
“This is coming to me from not just my Republican constituents,” added Carrico, whose district voted overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. “I want to be a voice for a region that feels they have no reason to come to the polls.”
The number of electoral college votes each state gets is determined by its congressional representation — one is awarded for each House member and each senator. The District’s three electoral votes are equal to the amount it would have if it were a state.
The proposed changes in Virginia probably would lead to a much smaller role for the swing state in presidential elections.
With 13 electoral votes, Virginia is one of the most attractive prizes in the nation. But most of its 11 congressional districts are either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic, so candidates would have little incentive to campaign on the possibility of peeling off an electoral vote or two. The state’s two remaining electoral votes would be determined by whichever candidate won the most congressional districts.
State Sen. Donald A. McEachin (D-Henrico) called the proposal one of Republicans’ many “sore-loser bills” related to elections and voting.
“The bill is absolutely a partisan bill aimed at defying the will of the voters, giving Republican presidential candidates most of Virginia’s electoral votes, regardless of who carries the state,” he said.
The electoral college proposal is among dozens of voting-related measures the General Assembly is considering.
Republicans have submitted bills aimed at requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification before casting ballots and making groups that conduct voter-registration drives undergo training and take an oath to abide by registration laws.
On Monday, Senate Republicans rushed through a redistricting plan that would overhaul Virginia’s 40 Senate districts to give the party a better chance to gain seats. That effort awaits action in the House of Delegates.
How far the congressional district proposal might get is unclear in a General Assembly still dealing with the redistricting surprise and in an evenly divided Senate, where Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling could be a tiebreaker.
Democrats nationwide attacked the proposed plans, which could tip the balance away from population-heavy urban centers to more rural districts that tend to favor Republicans.
“They can’t appeal to a majority of voters, whether it’s here in Wisconsin or Michigan or in the rest of the Midwest, so they are undermining a majority of voters,” said Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has expressed interest in changing the state’s system. “The Republicans realize that where they are today, they can’t win a presidential election. It’s an audacious attempt to rig the system.”
In Pennsylvania, a bill that would have split the state’s 20 electoral votes based on the winner of congressional districts never made it out of committee in the last session.
But state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R), who introduced the previous bill, is set to introduce a measure in early February that would allocate votes based on the percentage of the popular vote.
Obama won Pennsylvania 52 percent to 47 percent, and under Pileggi’s proposal, Romney would have received eight votes and Obama the remaining 12.
“The current system does not reflect the will of the people in Pennsylvania,” said Erik Arneson, a Pileggi spokesman. “Senator Pileggi’s goal all along has been to align the electoral vote more closely with the popular vote.”
Gov. Tom Corbett (R) backed the prior measure but has not reviewed the new bill, Arneson said.
In Michigan, state Rep. Pete Lund (R) will introduce a bill this session that would make the switch to congressional districts.
“I think it’s a good thing for Michigan because we’ve gotten to the point where elections are decided by a few states, and Michigan isn’t one of them,” said Lund, who added that it’s “too early to tell” what kind of support his legislation will receive.
The bill in Virginia isn’t the first time that such a measure has come up. In fact, several have been introduced over the past decade, all with the same rationale of giving more say to voters on the losing side. The only difference is that those bills were submitted by Democrats, back when they weren’t having as much luck in the state in presidential elections. None of those measures made it out of committee.
Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake contributed to this report.