By Chris Wilson
The outrage wholesaler known as the Virginia legislature—thepeople who brought you the transvaginal ultrasound—considered legislation thisweek to allotthe state’s 13 electoral votes to the winning presidential candidate in each of the state’s congressionaldistricts, rather than to the overall winner of the statewide vote. The bill diedin committee, but you can expect to hear about this idea a few more times.National Journal’s Reid Wilson reported in December that severalRepublican-controlled states that voted for President Barack Obama areconsidering a similar policy.
Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already split theirelectoral votes this way, and the primary effect is to aggravate those of uswho make election maps for a living. The states currently have two and threemembers of the House of Representatives, respectively, and tend to reliablyelect 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 tohighly competitive, Republicans dominate the House delegation. There is asimple explanation: The state is highly gerrymandered, withthe Democratic base concentrated into a few districts.
It would be highly unfair for only a few states to adoptthis system, but one might think it would work out OK if every state were to splitits electoral votes this way. In fact, the way congressional districts arepresently drawn, a national tally of congressional districts would often beeven less fair than if just a few states did it.
In the following interactive, you can see how the 2000, 2004and 2008 elections would have played out if each state had split its electoralvotes. (Because not all states report their election results by district, itwill be awhile before we have reliable 2012 figures.)
The 2000 election is particularly striking: George W. Bushlost 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 thepopular vote in each state, though you can try it by the winner of the most congressionaldistricts as well, as the Virginia law proposed.)
In all cases, the split system benefits Republicans, thoughnot always unfairly. The 2008 election, divided this way, produces a resultthat much more closely resembles the popular vote than the state-by-stateresults do.
That’s assuming, however, that your definition of “fair” insome way encompasses the idea that the winner of the popular vote should winthe election. In fact, efforts to undermine the popular vote are as old as thecountry. The most notable example is the Senate, which awards equal power toWyoming (population 576,412) andCalifornia (population 38,041,430).
In essence, the entire country is gerrymandered along statelines. Traditionally Democratic voters are concentrated in smaller regions thathave a disproportionately small presence in the electoral college, given thateven the sparsest states get a minimum of three electoral votes.
I am strongly in favor of redistricting the country, stateborder by state border. In the interim, any effort to allot presidentialelectors by congressional district will increase the likelihood that a man orwoman will once again win the highest office without winning the most votes.