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Who Needs to Win to Win?

Can a party rule by capturing most of the country but less than half of the people? We might be about to find out.

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In the immediate aftermath of last November’s election, the Republican Party, snapped suddenly out of the self-delusion of imminent victory promulgated by the Karl Roves and Dick Morrises of their party, came face-to-face with grim reality: Most of America hated them. And the Americans who didn’t hate them were dying off at a disconcerting pace. Something, nearly everybody both inside and outside the party agreed, would have to be done to rehabilitate the party brand. These were the choices: change, or continue to lose.

Since the New Year, though, a third possibility has emerged. What if Republicans don’t compromise with public opinion, but also don’t lose?

A glimpse of such a future came slowly into view in the weeks following the election, when Republican legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio floated, with varying levels of commitment, a plan to rig the Electoral College. Each of those states voted for Obama, yet Republicans controlled each of their state governments. The plan would entail allocating the electoral vote in each state not in a lump sum to the candidate who gets more votes, but piecemeal, to the winner of each congressional district.

As it happens, Republicans in those states had already stacked the congressional districts in their party’s favor, so that roughly two thirds of the districts supported Mitt Romney in the last election even though all the states went for Obama. Allocating blue-state electors by congressional district would hand the GOP a massive advantage in the presidential election. Had those states allocated electors this way in 2012, Wisconsin, where Obama won by 7 percent, would have split its electoral votes 5-5. Michigan, which Obama carried with 54 percent of the vote, would have given Romney nine of its sixteen electoral votes. Romney would have needed only to flip his razor-thin loss in Florida to win the presidency despite losing the national vote by four percentage points.

“It’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at,” asserted Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Republican officials in the states conspicuously left the door open. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has called it “an interesting idea” and “worth looking at.” Michigan governor Rick Snyder said, “It could be done in a thoughtful [way] over the next couple years, and people can have a thoughtful discussion.” Republicans in all these states, being blue states, left themselves room to retreat in the face of a backlash, as most of them did once national reporters grasped the implications of the proposal.

That a party would even contemplate such a blatant scheme to rig the rules so that it might win elections, when any remotely fair standard dictates it ought to lose, boggles the mind. But this plot did not come out of nowhere, and it is not merely an exercise in momentary partisan opportunism. It is the expression of a durable American political tradition of skepticism of democracy (or, to put it more charitably, skepticism of majoritarian democracy). And as the Republican Party comes to grips with an increasingly hostile public, this tradition is coming to the fore.

If you listen closely to the arguments by the Republican vote riggers, you can hear rationalizations, yes, but also a real idea: Rural Americans deserve disproportionate political representation. Charles W. Carrico, a small-town Republican state senator from Virginia who sponsored his state’s Electoral College–alteration bill, said, “People in my district—they feel discouraged by coming out because their votes don’t mean anything if they’re outvoted in metropolitan districts.” Jase Bolger, speaker of the state House of Representatives in Michigan, likewise fretted over the voting power of the urban hordes: “I hear that more and more from our citizens in various parts of the State of Michigan, that they don’t feel like their vote for president counts, because another area of the state may dominate that or could sway their vote.”

To believers in majoritarian democracy, this idea is silly. People in urban areas outvote people in small towns because there are more of them. If you have more voters, you’re supposed to win. It would be unfair if you didn’t.

Intuitive as it sounds, that definition of democracy has never completely prevailed in the United States. The Constitution itself was a compromise between advocates of majority rule and interests like slave-owners and small-state residents who demanded disproportionate representation. When we consider the dire position of the Republican Party—which, since November, has sunk even lower in opinion polls—we automatically equate political power with majority approval. The two things are not the same, and the discrepancy helps explain why the party, even in its reviled standing and without additional vote-rigging schemes, is in a better position than you might think.


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