The new millennium has underscored the importance of the rules of American democracy—and their vulnerability to partisan gaming. The debacle of the 2000 presidential election, where a fair outcome was lost in a fog of botched ballots and an antiquated Electoral College, was just the beginning. Tom DeLay and Rick Perry’s mid-decade gerrymander of Texas Congressional districts flipped six House seats, Citizens United widened the floodgates for special interest money, and abuse of the Senate filibuster challenged democratic norms. This year, newly empowered GOP leaders across the country have pursued legislation that will make it harder for millions of Americans to vote in 2012. These laws range from repealing election day voter registration in Maine to ramming through stringent photo ID requirements for would-be voters in battleground states like Wisconsin.
Now Pennsylvania is debating an even more brazen power grab. Reviving an idea proposed by Grover Norquist a decade ago, Republican Governor Tom Corbett and GOP leaders in the state’s House and Senate want to reallocate its Electoral College votes according to presidential results in each Congressional district. Unlike the typical statewide winner-take-all system, the plan would give each district an electoral vote, while the overall state result would be worth only two electors. With gerrymandering expected to create more Republican strongholds in Pennsylvania next year, the GOP nominee would likely carry twelve of the state’s eighteen House districts. The result: Barack Obama would likely lose most of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes even while winning statewide.
Pennsylvania’s proposal is almost certainly legal, however perverse. The Constitution gives states exclusive power over Electoral College rules. Most troubling is that such plans are catching on: Wisconsin’s legislature has a similar bill, and states with Republican-drawn redistricting maps, like Michigan and Ohio, are waiting in the wings.
The math for such a Republican strategy is simple. Democratic presidential candidates haven’t lost Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin since 1988. Ohio is a more genuine swing state, but Obama won it by just 5 percent in 2008—and lawmakers have implemented a breathtaking gerrymander that gives Republicans a big edge in twelve of the state’s sixteen districts. Allocating electoral votes by district in all four states would mean that even if Obama swept them again in 2012, Republicans would win most of their sixty-four electoral votes—a giant boost toward a presidential win no matter what the outcome of the national popular vote.
Opponents of the Pennsylvania plan are fighting back. Former Governor Ed Rendell says his state would be “sacrificing tremendous clout,” while former Senator Arlen Specter predicts an immediate loss of federal dollars once Pennsylvania loses swing state allure. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters testified against the plan and are considering lawsuits. Even more decisive might be fears expressed by Republican House members who are nervous about the prospect of facing stronger challenges. But in the trench warfare of today’s partisan politics, a gift of thirty-eight electoral votes may be too tempting for Republicans to just say no.
The best defense may be a good offense. Reformers must force a national debate on changing presidential elections to make every American count. Under current Electoral College rules, not only can the White House go to the loser of the popular vote; even more destructive, campaigning matters only in states where a candidate isn’t comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In 2008 this meant that 98 percent of peak campaign season spending and visits were showered on fifteen states representing barely a third of Americans. Next year, that number of swing states may drop to single digits.
Democrats should shame Republicans by unabashedly embracing the National Popular Vote bill. Under this proposal, states would enter an interstate agreement to collectively award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. So far, eight states and DC have passed it, representing 132 electoral votes and a quarter of all Americans. In Rhode Island, Delaware and New York, the bill has passed one chamber, but Democratic leaders have blocked passage. It may be a long shot to have this plan in place by 2012, but Democrats should still pass the bill everywhere they can—and call on fair-minded Republicans to do the same.
A national popular vote would not tilt the field for either party. For every big popular vote win by Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, Republicans had a similar win by Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. Both parties would gain by having new incentives to make Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy real while doing what a majority of Americans want and what represents the best definition of what democracy should be: ensuring that every vote in every corner of the nation would matter in every election, for the first time in American history.