Following another bitter presidential loss, Republicans in several states are pushing for rule changes that would boost their odds in future races — essentially, switching the Electoral College allocation method in Democratic-leaning swing states from the current winner-take-all system to one that would help Republicans capture at least some electoral votes in those battlegrounds. In the short run, of course, such changes would probably help Republicans siphon off electoral votes in states like Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But these rule changes would also make a mockery of the concept of fair elections, and harm the twin Republican principles of conservativism and federalism. Currently, all but two states award Electoral College votes using a winner-take-all system (called the Unit Rule). The Unit Rule is not mandatory. Other methods have been used in the past, including having the state legislature hand out the electoral votes however it sees fit. Another popular alternative method, one that is currently used by Maine and Nebraska, is giving one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district.
The Unit Rule is widely used today because of its political benefits. In the early days of the republic, it was not clear which system was best. Some politicians were strong proponents of the district-based system — including Thomas Jefferson. But this philosophical position quickly gave way to expediency. When Jefferson ran for president in 1800, his native Virginia transferred over to the Unit Rule to hand Jefferson the full allotment of his home state’s votes.
In the ensuing elections, many states switched allocation methods. Eventually, the trend toward a more democratic system in the 1820s led to the phasing out of the state legislatures’ allocating votes. At the same time, politicians realized that the district system diluted the impact of a state’s vote, and prevented state lawmakers from delivering their entire electoral bounty to their preferred candidate. By 1836, all states except South Carolina used the winner-take-all method.
However, over the years, there have been occasional attempts to switch to a different plan to help various favored candidates. For instance, in 1892, Michigan switched to the district plan to help Grover Cleveland, and then switched back to the Unit Rule for the 1896 election.
Fast forward to the modern day. Since the super-tight 2000 election, there have been numerous attempts to switch the allocation methods of states. Republicans tried to loosen Democrats’ stranglehold on deep-blue California by pushing for a district-based system, which would have been devastating to Democrats. Liberals have made similar noises about revising the laws of North Carolina and Colorado. None of these plans have come fruition.
Since Obama’s landslide victory in November, all of the talk about changing the system — and there has been a lot of it — has been on the Republican side. Thanks to the GOP’s big wins in the 2010 elections, Republicans control the legislatures and the governors’ offices of a number of states that voted for Obama, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia. These states are now targets for a switch to the district-based method.
This would clearly damage Democrats’ short-term political prospects. For example, under the system proposed by Virginia, the state’s electoral votes would have gone from 13 for Obama to 9-4 in favor of Mitt Romney — because he won a bunch of congressional districts despite decisively losing the state’s popular vote.
Such rule changes would immediately nationalize state legislative elections. Thanks to their role in gerrymandering, state legislative elections are already receiving increased attention from national figures. If states started fussing with the rules of the Electoral College, this attention would skyrocket. Consider this: In the 2011 Wisconsin recalls of nine state senators, total campaign spending topped $44 million. Imagine how much would be spent if the presidency were thought to be on the line.