Winner take all.

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No, State Republicans Won't Rig 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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Republicans in Virginia, Minnesota, and New Hampshire are talking about changing the electoral college rules in those states from the winner-take-all system 48 states use to the congressional district system Maine and Nebraska employ: candidates get an electoral vote for each district they win, plus the statewide winner gets the states' other two votes.

If they succeeded in rigging the election in this way, it would be a major blow to democracy. It's one thing for a fluke election to yield an electoral college winner who loses the popular vote. It's bad if relatively stable borders and shifts in voting support gave one party a mild advantage in the electoral college so that it would habitually win all close (popular vote) elections. But if rules deliberately shift state-by-state to give one party an edge? That's no longer a fair election. If it happened, U.S. democracy would be severely weakened. 

I absolutely believe Republicans would break institutional norms in order to gain electoral advantage. This one, however, isn't something anyone needs to worry about. That's not just because Virginia and Minnesota have Democratic governors who would surely veto the measures. Even if Republicans are elected in those states, action remains unlikely. The incentives at the state level are all wrong. 

On first look, it seems like a great idea for Republicans. Minnesota and Virginia both went to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and to Barack Obama in both of his victories. So perhaps it makes sense, if only they could, for Republicans to force a split electoral college vote in those states. In fact, since district lines in both states are drawn favorably for Republicans, they would benefit disproportionately. Clinton won Virginia comfortably, but Trump won 6 of its 11 congressional districts. But the general principle is that it's always going to be good for a party to set up winner-take-all rules for the states it wins and loser-gets-something rules in the states it loses. 

But this idea isn't new. Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin Republicans thought of it several years ago -- and they had both the unified Republican government to make it happen and a track record of Democrats triumphing in presidential elections. So why didn't they seize their advantage when they had the chance?

The minor reason is the state interest in having the biggest electoral college clout. Pennsylvania is a swing state with 20 electoral votes, which makes it a major player in presidential elections. Not only does that guarantee a small economic windfall every four years in advertising and other candidate spending, but it means that presidential candidates will be very aware of interests located in the Keystone State when formulating policy. So there's a bipartisan interest in staying unified.  

Of course, partisan incentives often defeat bipartisan ones these days, so that's not a good enough explanation.

The big reason is the only places a party will have the opportunity to rig the election in this way are states in which that party will fear the plan backfiring. 

After all, in order to pass a partisan plan to change electoral vote rules in a state, a party needs to have won a gubernatorial election and also control of both chambers of the legislature. Any party that succeeds in doing so will naturally -- and correctly -- believe that it has a fair chance of carrying that state for its next presidential candidate. 

Indeed, had Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio -- all Barack Obama states with unified Republican control at some point after 2008 -- gone ahead and changed their systems, Republicans would have paid the price when all five flipped to Trump in 2016. Clinton won a total of 30 house districts in those five states, enough to increase her total (had all electors been faithful) from 232 to 262 electoral votes and trimming Trump's total from 306 down to 276. Not quite enough to swing the election, but close! 

So while Democratic governors will prevent these schemes in Virginia and Minnesota for now, if Republicans wind up with unified control of those states after 2017 and 2018 elections, they may initially move to rig the electoral college -- but they'll almost certainly back off once they decide that those states are trending Republican.  The real opportunities to create an unfair system would be if Republicans divided California or New York -- but they'll never have that chance, at least unless those states change enough that it would no longer make sense to implement the plan. 

There are plenty of threats to democracy in the U.S. these days, but this one just doesn't seem likely to happen.

  1. The idea state to do this scheme is a small, lopsided state with two or three House seats including one competitive district -- exactly the story in Nebraska, and to some extent Maine as well. Those states can get more national attention from splitting their vote, while the partisan cost (the risk of one electoral vote) is small. 

  2. I suppose the biggest danger would be a lame duck action after a landslide sweeps a party out of office. But even then, however, the defeated party would still be aware they are capable of winning statewide; it would take an unusually pessimistic party to conclude that having lost one election they would never win another.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net