Recently Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Virginia introduced legislation to make the distribution of electoral votes for president dependent on the votes in each congressional districts instead of statewide results. Legislation to that effect has been introduced in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia, and there are serious discussions in Pennsylvania. Legislators in states like Florida and Ohio also may introduce similar legislation. Currently, only Maine and Nebraska (a state with a unicameral, bipartisan legislature) allocate their electoral votes in a similar fashion.
Most critics of this plan identify it as a scheme by the GOP to rig the election to improve its chances to elect a president. But there are a number of reasons to object to this proposal beyond its partisan intent or impact. Significantly, it would import into the presidential election process the dysfunction that plagues the congressional districting process. The problems with redistricting include not only partisan gerrymandering but also citizen exclusion from the redistricting process, imbalanced districts based on prison-based gerrymandering, and chronic problems with Census undercounts.
An increasing number of congressional districts also reflect calculations by those in power about how they can best preserve their power. Incumbents carve the citizens of their state into districts for maximum personal and partisan advantage. Democracy suffers while neighborhoods are split, competing candidates are drawn out of districts, and groups of voters are ‘cracked’ or ‘packed’ to manipulate their voting power. Most recently we saw single party legislative control of the redistricting process in most states – Democrats controlled redistricting in 6 states and Republicans controlled redistricting in 17 states. Some of the most egregious plans came from Republicans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan; and Democrats in Illinois and Maryland. In all of those states, partisans manipulated districts to disproportionately benefit the party drawing the lines; it would be an injustice to use those same district lines to determine the allocation of electoral votes in a presidential election.
Proponents of this change assert that since presidential candidates do not win 100 percent of the votes in a state, awarding electors based upon the results in congressional district is more representative of how voters voted. This would only be true if congressional districts were drawn to fairly represent citizens, rather than to protect political parties.
The Cook Political Report tells us that despite already having a majority of the popular vote, the current district lines make it almost impossible for the Democrats to win control of the House of Representatives. Specifically, “Democrats might need to win nearly 55 percent of all House votes cast in order to win a majority at any point in the coming decade. In 13 of the last 15 cycles, neither party has hit 55 percent of the vote.”
In the 2012 election, President Obama won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Yet the GOP maintained control of the House in spite of the fact that the popular vote went to Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives. While 2012 is the most extreme example of partisan redistricting control – it is not the only example.
Redistricting prevents the true voice of the people from being heard time and time again. In 1980, Republicans broke even, winning 49% of the popular vote, while Democrats won 56% of the seats. Similarly, there was an especially large gap between the Republican percentage of the vote in 1990 with Republicans winning 46% of the popular vote, but only 38% of the House seats. These examples demonstrate that time and again, allocating electoral votes based upon congressional districts is not necessarily reflective of the national popular vote.
Unquestionably, redistricting processes are desperate for reform. We like to think that voters choose their politicians, but in the redistricting process politicians often choose their voters. States like Arizona, California, Florida and others are adopting more independent and transparent redistricting processes, but the mechanisms remain vulnerable to partisan machinations. Certainly, well-designed redistricting systems can help ensure that the voices of voters are heard and can inspire public confidence in both a process and an outcome recognized as fair. Until that happens, however, we should not permit the problems that infect redistricting to contaminate our presidential elections.
Photo by woodleywonderworks.