Reince Priebus speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Fresh from claiming the GOP’s 2012 run was “a great campaign—a great nine-month campaign” that only went awry at the end, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus now wants to rig the Electoral College so that when Republicans lose they still might “win.”
Specifically, Priebus is urging Republican governors and legislators to take up what was once a fringe scheme to change the rule for distribution of Electoral College votes. Under the Priebus plan, electoral votes from battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states that now regularly back Democrats for president would be allocated not to the statewide winner but to the winners of individual congressional districts.
Because of gerrymandering by Republican governors and legislators, and the concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas and college towns, divvying up Electoral College votes based on congressional district wins would yield significantly better results for the GOP. In Wisconsin, where Democrat Barack Obama won in 2012 by a wider margin than he did nationally, the president would only have gotten half the electoral votes. In Pennsylvania, where Obama won easily, he would not have gotten the twenty electoral votes that he did; instead, under the Priebus plan, it would have been eight for Republican Mitt Romney, twelve for Barack Obama.
Nationwide, Obama won a sweeping popular-vote victory—with an almost 5-million ballot margin that made him the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to take more than 51 percent of the vote in two elections. That translated to a very comfortable 322-206 win in the Electoral College.
How would the 2012 results have changed if a Priebus plan had been in place? According to an analysis by Fair Vote-The Center for Voting and Democracy, the results would have been a dramatically closer and might even have yielded a Romney win.
Under the most commonly proposed district plan (the statewide winner gets two votes with the rest divided by congressional district) Obama would have secured the narrowest possible win: 270-268. Under more aggressive plans (including one that awards electoral votes by district and then gives the two statewide votes to the candidate who won the most districts), Romney would have won 280-258.
“If Republicans in 2011 had abused their monopoly control of state government in several key swing states and passed new laws for allocating electoral votes, the exact same votes cast in the exact same way in the 2012 election would have converted Barack Obama’s advantage of nearly five million popular votes and 126 electoral votes into a resounding Electoral College defeat,” explains FairVote’s Rob Richie.
This is something Priebus, a bare-knuckles pol who promoted a variety of voter-disenfranchisement schemes in 2012, well understands.
The RNC chair is encouraging Republican governors and legislators—who, thanks to the “Republican wave” election of 2010, still control many battleground states that backed Obama and the Democrats in 2012—to game the system.
“I think it’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue [Democratic in presidential politics] that are fully controlled red [in the statehouse] ought to be considering,” Priebus says with regard to the schemes for distributing electoral votes by district rather than the traditional awarding of the votes of each state (except Nebraska and Maine, which have historically used narrowly defined district plans) to the winner.
Already, there are moves afoot in a number of battleground states to “fix” the rules to favor the Republicans in 2016, just as they have already fixed the district lines for electing members of the House. Thanks to gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic votes, Republicans were able to lose the overall nationwide vote for US House seats by 1.4 million votes and still take control of the chamber—thus giving the United States the divided government that voters have rejected.
There are many reforms that are needed to expand democracy in the United States. But gaming the Electoral College is not one of them.
Indeed, as Richie says, the very fact that it is possible to rewrite the rules and use gerrymandered congressional district lines to thwart the will of the people regarding the election of the president of the United States the very fact “should give us all pause.”
“The Election of the president should be a fair process where all American voters should have an equal ability to hold their president accountable,” says Richie. “It’s time for the nation to embrace one-person, one-vote elections and the ‘fair fight’ represented by a national popular vote. Let’s forever dismiss the potential of such electoral hooliganism and finally do what the overwhelming majorities of Americans have consistently preferred: make every vote equal with a national popular vote for president.”
That’s the right standard for a modern nation that respects democracy.
And Reince Priebus, who was wrong about the Republicans running a “great” campaign in 2012, is even more wrong when he proposes rule changes that would allow a losing Republican candidate to “win” the presidency.
For a glimpse of more hopeful post-election GOP policy, read our latest dispatch from Voting Rights Watch.