As if you had a choice.

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Republicans Aren't Rigging the Electoral College

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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No, Republicans aren't going to use their triumphs in state legislative and governor's races to rig the Electoral College. Let’s try to kill this one off right away -- and not just because, as Dave Weigel reports at Bloomberg Politics, Republicans don't seem to have much interest in it, aside from a single National Review blog post.

There are three things to know about rigging the Electoral College.

First, it would be perfectly legal for Republicans in Democratic-leaning states to change the way these votes are accumulated there. Here’s how they would do it:

Currently almost every state has a winner-takes-all allocation of electoral votes. When Barack Obama narrowly won Ohio in 2012, he received all of Ohio’s 18 votes. But each state is free to choose how to divvy up theirs as they please. Nebraska and Maine already do it by congressional district, although it usually doesn’t make any difference. The idea would be for Republicans in office in Democratic-leaning states to switch to a plan that would split the votes in those states.

For example, a proportional system in 2012 in Ohio would presumably have given Obama only 10 electoral votes and Mitt Romney eight. Or a plan that allocated one electoral vote for winning each congressional district, plus two votes for winning the state, would also effectively split the tally.

Doing this in a bunch of Democratic-leaning states, while preserving winner-take-all in Republican-leaning ones, would strongly bias the system toward Republicans. If Ohio goes for Democrats, for example, and Georgia (16 votes) goes for Republicans, the Democrats win an 18-16 advantage, but if Ohio has a proportional system, then the same voting would produce a 24-10 Republican landslide.

The second thing to know is that such tactics would be despicable. A horrible thing to do. Winning elections and then changing the rules to prevent the other side from ever winning again is what destroys democratic government.

But just because we can say this is technically and constitutionally possible doesn't mean it will happen. It's as relevant as saying that any party could put five Supreme Court justices in place who would be willing to approve laws restricting the vote to people who have purchased at least three Newt Gingrich novels (or, alternatively, people who can recite passages from Howard Zinn’s "People’s History of the United States").

The third thing to know is the most important: It won’t happen, just as I predicted the last time these ideas were bandied about. That’s because what’s good for the national Republican Party as a whole -- reducing the damage Michigan or Ohio would cause for their candidate in the Electoral College -- is bad for those states, including the Republican Party in those states.

Their large Electoral College clout is what makes them valuable presidential prizes, which means candidates devote resources to them, both in electioneering efforts and in pandering to their interests. Why would presidential candidates promise Youngstown or Flint more federal largess if winning Ohio and Michigan no longer nets a large electoral vote prize?

What’s more, the logic of using electoral victories in this way requires Republican governors and state legislators to believe that their wins were flukes -- that they have to act now before they are booted from office the next time. People don’t think that way! Instead, you can be sure those winners right now believe that their states are trending Republican and that dividing the Electoral College vote would backfire against them when Republicans win the state in 2016.

And that’s without crediting Republican legislators for having any commitment to democratic values, decency and fair play. Sure, they’ll work voting rules to give their party an edge, but there’s a huge difference between "targeted inconvenience" and a flat-out rigging of the game.

So, yes, Electoral College rigging is possible and would be monstrous. But it’s also low on the list of things to worry about.

  1. As Matt Yglesias notes, it’s also constitutional for states to decide not to hold a proper election at all and for a state legislature to award its electoral votes to any candidate it chooses. “Constitutional” isn’t, that is, the test of whether something is democratic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net