The GOP’s Anti-Democratic Panic

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The news media have started paying some attention to the Republican plan to rig the electoral college (a plot I mention in my story in this week’s print magazine). The latest entry here is Pennsylvania, where the Republican State Senate leader is proposing a bill to split up the state’s electoral votes.

David Frum says this is all just business as usual, citing a 2004 attempt by Democrats to allocate Colorado’s electoral votes proportionally. “Moral,” he concludes, “when it comes to setting the rules of the game, there are no angels.” I agree that there are no angels and both parties like winning. But Frum’s example here is not very apt at all.

What we’ve seen since November is a concerted effort by the Republican Party to leverage both its control of a number of state governments and its gerrymandering of the House map in those states. With the express support of the RNC chairman, and at least cautious initial support by the leading Republican elected officials in the affected states, Republicans floated plans in every GOP-controlled blue state to allocate electoral votes by congressional district. The plan would have the double benefit of splitting a number of blue state electoral votes, while red state electoral votes remain indivisible, and allocating those votes in such a way as to ensure that the GOP’s share of electoral votes from those states vastly outstrips its share of the vote.

Of those factors I just described, none were present in the 2004 effort to rejigger Colorado. I went back and read everything I could find on the plan on Nexis, and there was no evidence of any elected-level Democratic support for the plan (let alone a national campaign to split up Republican votes wherever possible). The plan seemed to spring from liberal activists and was opposed by Democratic officials. What’s more, it would have allocated the state’s electoral votes proportionally rather than by district — unfair still, but less unfair than the Republican plans to guarantee their candidate wins more electoral votes even in states he could lose.

Now, in any case, the electoral college rigging scheme has rapidly lost momentum over the last couple of weeks. What interests me about it, and what inspired my piece, is it suggests a certain panic about democracy itself at work in the Republican Party right now. Republican officials have argued, in support of the electoral college scheme, that it is unfair for urban voters to outvote those who live in small towns.

In my essay, I categorize the electoral college plan along with the wave of limits on voting rights, the congressional GOP assertion of the right to nullify duly passed votes by refusing to confirm any appointees to carry them out, and the rise of the Constitution in Exile movement, which uses the courts to impose laissez-faire policies that can't be passed legislatively.

All of these things are an attempt to handle political adversity by expanding the ability of the conservative minority to wield political power. Not all of them will succeed perfectly, or even at all. But it’s indicative of the party’s current state — not a coordinated strategy by any means, but a kind of adaptive response to the growing sense of being outnumbered at the polls.