Monday, January 28, 2013

The Tricky Math of Rigging the Electoral College

Rick Hasen has a good column about about the national GOP effort to get Republican-controlled legislatures in states which vote for Democrats in presidential elections to switch to apportioning electoral votes by Congressional districts. Mainly I agree with his bottom line: it's unlikely to go anywhere. In particular, he focuses, correctly, on some of the ways in which the incentives for the legislators and governors involved run against the incentives of national presidential candidates.

Hasen is certainly correct that there's nothing illegal or unconstitutional about the scheme. I don't really think he's right that Democrats have been overly hyping the thing, though; even if it's both legal and unlikely to happen, it's still pretty outrageous.

But it's worth going over again just how tricky the math of this scheme is.

Remember, while a national electoral-vote-by-Congressional-district plan would strongly favor Republicans, there's virtually no chance it could happen. So we're talking state-by-state "reform," which in practical terms means states with partisan control. Not only that, it means states with Republican partisan control which support Democrats in presidential elections. There aren't many of those!

Indeed, the 2010 GOP landslide sandwiched by two good Democratic years set up the rare situation in which there actually are several states which sort of fit. Which leads to columns noting how if all of them -- FL, WI, VA, PA, MI, and OH -- went for it, Romney could have defeated Obama.

But here's the thing. Outside of all the other reasons that it's unlikely, the math of doing it in a few selected states gets weird quickly.

That's because we don't know, in advance, exactly how the next election is going to turn out; nor do we know the exact rank of the states (that is, from most to least Republican).

The thing is that splitting the electoral votes is double-edged: it helps Republicans if Democrats win the state, but it helps Democrats if Republicans win it. That's true even if there is a strongly Republican bias; even if Republicans gain a lot more if Democrats win than Democrats do if Republicans win (say, a state with 20 electoral votes in which the districts will likely produce a 12-6 GOP edge in a close race), it's still a real problem for Republicans. That's the complexity of the situation that, say, Micah Cohen really overlooks.

See, the more Republican the state, the more Republicans would risk giving away electoral votes. But if they only do it in relatively safe Democratic states -- some subset of the six states mentioned above -- then the total electoral vote haul is less likely to make a difference.

And, again, we don't know the rank-order in advance. Could Ohio go Republican while Virginia and Florida go for the Democrats? Sure. And if Ohio is the only state that buys in and then goes Republican in an election which would have yielded a very slim GOP electoral vote edge, it could easily turn instead into a Democratic win. It's even order to do this the GOP needs to act now, before the risk that midterm elections make it impossible to do in some states -- but that also opens up the risk of a big Democratic win in  one or more state followed by a flip back, thus potentially leaving the scheme in a "wrong" combination of states (such as only the most Republican-leaning one).

Not to mention that, as I said in the earlier piece, the people who actually have to support this -- elected Republicans -- are very likely to take the very fact of their election as a reason to be believe that their state is trending Republican, and therefore passing the measure would be counterproductive! When it comes to their own elections, I'm perfectly willing to believe that politicians are paranoid and would want the largest possible electoral advantage in their district; that's why bipartisan, incumbent-protection gerrymanders are more common than partisan, seat-maximizing gerrymanders.

But the point here is that even if state Republicans were perfectly willing to ignore their own incentives and instead do whatever the national party believed was best, it still would be extremely difficult to game out the proper combination of states in advance. If they could do the entire nation, then it would be easy. But since that can't be done, what remains just isn't very promising.


  1. Obviously, Republicans need to take a page out of Kevin Drum's book and apportion electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis for the candidate who wins a majority of the congressional districts.

    I mean really, do we want our national candidates only going to the inner cities to see how many voters they can bribe and ballot boxes they can stuff, or do we want them to get out and talk to voters in the real Virginia?

    Completely incidentally, if we took the congressional distribution from 2012, that would move Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado into Romney's corner, as well as making New Jersey, Nevada, and Iowa toss-ups. It's not just a Republican thing though, because Obama would have gotten Arizona.

    1. Really? The people in "inner cities" are not real Virginians? And they only vote when bribed?

      Really? Really?

    2. Jerry Meyers: I may be able to help you out here. Republicans do not bribe voters, they only offer to reduce their taxes, and the biggest tax reductions go to the rich. It kind of sounds like bribery - you're talking in some cases about tens of thousands of dollars. Why is that not a bribe? Because the beneficiaries of the tax cuts do not need the money. It's like we're having lunch and I let you have the last slice of pizza. You don't need the pizza, and you're unlikely to think that much better of me just because I let you have one measly slice, so I haven't bribed you.

      But what about inner-city voters? Well, they are always short on money, so if you cut their payroll taxes and put 20 bucks a month or so in their pockets, they are going to think highly of you. Then there's food stamps, which generally go to people with so little money that they can barely afford to eat at all. Any little bit helps, so they are very grateful.

      But the biggest bribe of course is health care. Here the poor have it pretty good - they can go to the Emergency Room every time they or their children get sick, whereas with my very expensive employer-provided health insurance, I am generally not covered for ER care, except in true emergencies. For all my other maladies I have to go to the primary care physician I've been seeing for 20 years. But, he generally sees me by appointment only - you don't need a stinking appointment to go to the ER, so why am I getting screwed? Is it because I'm a maker instead a taker? And get this: My wife has actually gone to our doctor, only to be referred to the ER to be admitted to the hospital. Why do the poor get to cut out the middleman here?

      Despite the obvious superiority of the ER, the poor think that having health insurance, and all the baggage that comes with it like having a doctor who knows you and your medical history and can prescribe drugs and treatments in much less time than it takes for the lucky-ducks in the ER to get treatment from a resident, intern, nurse or paramedic, and waiting to see their doctors in a quiet office with last year's Newsweeks for their reading pleasure instead of a room crowded with bleeding people on gurneys. Pure envy. If it wouldn't destroy their moral fiber and deprive them of the positive good of on-demand ER care, I'd say let them have their damn insurance and see how much they like it. But I care too much about their well-being to subject them to cruelty of non-ER health care.

      I hope this helps. If you could just gin up a little more self-pity (the noblest of virtues), I think you'd understand just how bad you have it and how cushy your life could be if only you were poor. Keep trying, and best wishes.

  2. Two thoughts:
    1) I think Democratic demagoguery on this is more than justified. Not just because its outrageous, but because public opinion has been against the Electoral College by 60% or more in all the polls I'm aware of, going back a while. I don't have the data, but I'm pretty sure Democrats are counted amongst those against the EC, and I wouldn't be suprised if they're fairly numerous in there. In short: Dems need signals from their elites that they need to defend this thing that they don't quite want to defend, because it's better than the alternative (Republicans stealing elections).

    2) Really, its just fortunate for the whole enterprise that the two biggest prizes in the whole scenario (Texas and California) are safely off the table for either party to muck with. Florida and Ohio are too much on the fence to muck with. However, I think Pennsylvania is a real cause for concern. That state is reliably blue enough for Prez that the gains there are relatively more certain; the legislature is red, but unlikely to remain so (putting a bit of a "ticking clock" on fixing the EC); those red legislators are particularly rabid; the geography of the state lends itself to the plan, as the nominee could campaign only in areas that would help those legislators who might be endangered by voting for this. ("I can't get Rubio to spend money in suburban Philly because he thinks it's a waste...unless there's 2-4 EC votes up for grabs!") VA, MI and WI are somewhat concerning, too, but PA is the one I'm most worried about. But, at the end of the day, California and Texas are the ones that really and truly muck it up.

  3. In particular, splitting Virginia (in isolation) could have been catastrophic for the GOP. It would have set up a scenario under which their 2016 nominee could carry Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Virginia but still lost in the Electoral College:

    WI, MI, and PA would obviously be much more damaging to Dems, but in general the GOP needs to do a lot more thinking about how to flip ALL of the EVs in states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia if they want to get a shot at the White House.

  4. And, again, we don't know the rank-order in advance. Could Ohio go Republican while Virginia and Florida go for the Democrats? Sure. And if Ohio is the only state that buys in and then goes Republican in an election which would have yielded a very slim GOP electoral vote edge, it could easily turn instead into a Democratic win.

    No. I don't see this as double edged at all.

    It's OH, PA, WI, MI, VA and FLA that matter. Rank order doesn't. It's swing states that voted for BHO with GOP state control that matter for this project, and those are the electoral votes the GOP wants to capture.

    But every state that I've looked at a stark urban - rural divide. BHO took the cites in TX and GA.

    Here's a county map of OH.

    I know it's counties not districts, but the districts have been gerrymandered, so you get the point.

    I take some comfort from knowing the plan is now unlikely to go forward, but if some bright light hadn't been shined on it - and I give Rachel Maddow creds for this - who knows how it would have played out.

    The bottom line is the GOP has set districts in these states in a way that is unlikely to readjusted in the next several decades.

    Gerrymandering the presidential election is not something to shrug off.


  5. It seems to me that folks are underestimating the dynamic nature of elections. The risk for Republicans is that the Dems would mobilize in the close districts in these states, costing Republicans seats in the House. If you are a House member who won by less than 5 points, do you really want to see a Dem candidate pushing hard in your district? Nothing motivates voters on the other side as much as the perception that your side is cheating.

  6. I don't see why we don't just get rid of the electoral college in it's entirety... It makes no sense in modern day...

    1. Apart from the heavy weight of tradition it carries, changing the electoral college is practically impossible for the same reason that any serious electoral reform is--because the people who have the power to make the changes are the people who succeeded under the existing rules. They, quite reasonably, see attempts to change the rules as efforts to put them out of office.

    2. To abolish the Electoral College would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

      Instead, The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), by state laws.

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

      When the bill is enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

      The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

      In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

      More than 2,110 state legislators (in 50 states) have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the National Popular Vote bill.

      The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states with 243 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions with 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

      Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  7. I agree with your assessment about incentives. I also think that there are people who come up with bright ideas like this one, who might try to snow their fellow Republicans into acting against their own interests. Look at the cookie-cutter firearm carry laws passed by most of the Republican legislatures in the last few years, if you want to see people acting against their own interests. Nobody really wants schizophrenics to be armed in their own neighborhood.

    So we liberals are doing the Republican state legislators a favor by pointing out that they are shooting themselves in the foot if they do this.


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