Like British parliamentary elections in the 18th century, the Republican presidential primary in 2016 may be decided in rotten boroughs. While the rotten boroughs in Georgian England were the long since abandoned sites of medieval towns where aristocratic landowners could handpick members of parliament, the Republican rotten boroughs are vibrant, heavily populated urban areas in places like New York and Los Angeles. They just don’t have very many registered Republicans. The result of gerrymandered redistricting processes and the deep alienation of minority communities from the Republican party is that there are many congressional districts where registered Republicans are almost as rare as unicorns. Republican delegate apportionment rules in many states, however, mean that every congressional district receives three delegates to the convention, regardless of how many GOP voters live there. In contrast, the Democratic party’s formula for delegates is influenced by the number of votes cast for their presidential nominee in the past few elections in each district. Instead of seeking to represent every voter equally, this gives more weight to committed Democratic voters. And it means the ratio of voters to delegates is less unbalanced than it might be otherwise.
The Republican electoral process, though, can lead to perverse outcomes. For example, in Georgia, every congressional district awards three delegates. In the 5th congressional district where Democrat Barack Obama won over 83% of the vote in 2012, 7,000 people voted in the Republican primary on 1 March. In contrast, the state’s deep red 9th congressional district, where Obama got 20% of the vote in 2012 and over 60,000 people voted, is also allocated three delegates.
New York has particularly extreme examples of this. A total of 285 people turned out in what was then New York’s 16th congressional district to vote in the 2012 Republican presidential primary: 151 of them voted for Mitt Romney and he won three delegates there. This district, then composed of the South Bronx, was the most heavily Democratic congressional district in the country and Obama won almost 97% of the vote there in 2012. While turnout will certainly be higher on Tuesday with Donald Trump on the ballot, the district, now renumbered the 17th, will still award three delegates no matter how anemic voter turnout is.