By Chris Wilson
The outrage wholesaler known as the Virginia legislature—the people who brought you the transvaginal ultrasound—considered legislation this week to allot the state’s 13 electoral votes to the winning presidential candidate in each of the state’s congressional districts, rather than to the overall winner of the statewide vote. The bill died in committee, but you can expect to hear about this idea a few more times. National Journal’s Reid Wilson reported in December that several Republican-controlled states that voted for President Barack Obama are considering a similar policy.
Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already split their electoral votes this way, and the primary effect is to aggravate those of us who make election maps for a living. The states currently have two and three members of the House of Representatives, respectively, and tend to reliably elect Democratic and Republican candidates and presidents, also respectively. (Obama snagged one of those Nebraska electors in 2008, which was uncommon.)
Virginia is a different story. Even as the state has gone from reliably Republican to highly competitive, Republicans dominate the House delegation. There is a simple explanation: The state is highly gerrymandered, with the Democratic base concentrated into a few districts.
It would be highly unfair for only a few states to adopt this system, but one might think it would work out OK if every state were to split its electoral votes this way. In fact, the way congressional districts are presently drawn, a national tally of congressional districts would often be even less fair than if just a few states did it.
In the following interactive, you can see how the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections would have played out if each state had split its electoral votes. (Because not all states report their election results by district, it will be awhile before we have reliable 2012 figures.)
The 2000 election is particularly striking: George W. Bush lost the popular vote but comes out with 62 more electoral votes than Al Gore. (This assumes you award each state’s extra two electors by the winner of the popular vote in each state, though you can try it by the winner of the most congressional districts as well, as the Virginia law proposed.)
In all cases, the split system benefits Republicans, though not always unfairly. The 2008 election, divided this way, produces a result that much more closely resembles the popular vote than the state-by-state results do.
That’s assuming, however, that your definition of “fair” in some way encompasses the idea that the winner of the popular vote should win the election. In fact, efforts to undermine the popular vote are as old as the country. The most notable example is the Senate, which awards equal power to Wyoming (population 576,412) and California (population 38,041,430).
In essence, the entire country is gerrymandered along state lines. Traditionally Democratic voters are concentrated in smaller regions that have a disproportionately small presence in the electoral college, given that even the sparsest states get a minimum of three electoral votes.
I am strongly in favor of redistricting the country, state border by state border. In the interim, any effort to allot presidential electors by congressional district will increase the likelihood that a man or woman will once again win the highest office without winning the most votes.