Urbanization and Republican Cheating a Political Problem for Democrats

Leaders in some republican dominated states have discussed making changes to the way their Electoral College votes are distributed. These changes if enacted would largely be favourable to republican presidential candidates. Micah Cohen of the New York Times reports:

Republican state senators in Virginia, as well as the state’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, announced Friday that they would oppose a bill to change how the state awards its electoral votes in presidential elections. The proposed legislation would have moved the state from awarding its electors on a winner-take-all basis to a proportional system based on Congressional districts.

There have been rumblings of similar changes in other Republican-controlled states carried by President Obama in 2008 and 2012: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. And the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, has voiced his approval of such measures.

Even though the Virginia bill is unlikely to pass, Democrats have expressed concerns over the potential changes. If such changes were broadly enacted they could potentially mean very different electoral outcomes. If all states were to pass it (which would be highly unlikely) then the Electoral College would’ve been 277 to 261 for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Among the biggest concerns is that Democratic voters tend to live in more densely populated areas while the proposed changes would give greater importance to less-densely populated rural areas where Republicans fare better. This could cost Democrats quite a few seats, especially if number of districts won rather than popular vote is used in distributing left over electoral college votes. Instead of awarding states electoral college votes on the basis of popular vote. This means that a party with a minority of votes can come out on top as the Republicans did in the 2013 House of Representatives elections. Ian Millhiser wrote on Thinkprogress, “In a year when Republicans earned less than half the popular vote, they will control a little under 54 percent of the House.”

The Democrats having a higher number of voters living in cities means that there are a lot of urban districts where large Democratic majorities go to waste. Democrats are inherently disadvantaged by urbanization because they have more votes but in fewer districts. By using the popular vote method these votes go into the overall pool but going based on district the majorities in cities count for less. Republican gerrymandering tactics take advantage of this weakness.

The strategy and mentality behind the changes is also behind Republican gerrymandering tactics, and an attempt to win more seats by changing the rules when possible. Instead of trying to win more votes, votes are distributed differently and in a way that makes it easier for Republicans to win. David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times writes:

In Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, Republican candidates have been given a huge advantage by legislative redistricting driven to favor the GOP.

As a result, in those 10 states collectively, the Republican vote in 2012 was just 7% higher than for Democrats, yet Republicans took 76% more House seats. In most games, that would be called cheating.

If Electoral College seats are distributed based on House of Representative seats then Democrats could be cost electoral votes the same way they were cost House seats. This reflects an attitude that says: if you can’t win at the game, change the rules.

Rhiannon M. Kirkland

Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.