Rigging an Election Is Possible, But Trying to Rig an Electoral System Is a Fool’s Errand

In 2010, Republicans won the governorships and control of the legislatures in states across the Rust Belt. Because it was a census year, the GOP engaged in extreme gerrymandering that, at least at first glance, seemingly insured their control of those states for at least the next decade.

In a previous post, I suggested that their extreme gerrymandering might actually accelerate, rather than forestall, their current and growing demographic challenges in those states. For the gerrymandering has in many cases eliminated the possibility of meaningfully contested general elections. As a result, the primaries will encourage radical conservative groups to put forward candidates whose views will seem increasingly extreme and anachronistic not just to Democratic and independent voters but also to mainstream Republican voters.

Over the past two weeks, a GOP scheme to alter the electoral college system by awarding electoral votes in certain states by congressional districts has received considerable attention in the national media. For the most part, commentators have focused on the risk to the party in so blatantly attempting to rig the electoral system in its favor. Certainly, the GOP’s largely unsuccessful attempts to use supposed voter fraud as a cover for measures intended to suppress Democratic turnout in the 2012 elections has severely compromised the party’s ability to sell changes in the allocation of electoral votes as anything but an attempt to rig the system in its favor.

Although I am not a Republican, this scheme does not seem to me to be a cause for panic among progressives.

First of all, if the GOP thinks that the Democrats will simply wring their hands over such a strategy and allow it to seal their defeat, then the Far Right’s capacity for self-delusion has become something tantamount to delirium.

At the very least, Democrats will insist that the awarding of electoral votes by congressional district be enacted nationwide. In this last election, the GOP won 232 of the 438 seats in the House. That would give them a 26 vote margin in that portion of the electoral college vote. But the electoral votes allocated for Senate seats would have to be allocated either by the statewide presidential vote or by who held each seat. So, the Democrats would hold either a 52 to 48 edge in those electoral votes because Obama carried 26 states or a 55-45 edge based on the current division of Senate seats.  As a result, Romney would have won the electoral vote either by 22 votes or by 16 votes: that is, the final count would have been 280 to 258, or 277 to 261, in Romney’s favor.

So the alteration of the longstanding way in which electoral votes have been awarded would have provided the GOP with a fairly thin and, I think, very tenuous electoral margin, at least in the 2012 election—granting, of course, that the calculations of the Obama campaign were predicated on very different underlying assumptions about what was needed to win.

The broadest risk to the GOP is, of course, simply that once the historical weight of any longstanding tradition has been overcome, all sorts of subsequent changes can be much more easily enacted.

More narrowly, the limitation to gerrymandering is that it can be done only once every ten years. So even very normal population movement makes it a very risky proposition. Paradoxically, the more complicated the gerrymandering is, the more susceptible it is to being undermined by population movement. Over the last decade, about 40 million Americans changes residences each year. Of that total, only about 20% have relocated to another state. Of the remaining 80%, seven out of ten have relocated to a new residence within 25 miles of their old residence.

All other factors being equal, if the GOP had succeeded in suing this sort of strategy to elect Romney in 2012, the Democrats would then have needed to flip only six to eleven House seats to create a tie in the electoral college.

But there are still more considerations in the Democrats favor. Although GOP voters are more dependable than Democratic voters, the Democrats have much more room to increase their turnout. Only about 65% of eligible voters are currently registered nationwide, and only about that same percentage of registered voters actually vote, in a good year. Among unregistered eligible voters and non-voting registered voters, it has been estimated that Democrats would hold a 3:1 to 6:1 edge. (This is one of the major reasons why polls of registered voters almost always show a stronger Democratic showing than polls of likely voters.)

Much worse for the GOP is the likelihood that Democrats would respond to a GOP attempt to rig the electoral college vote in some states, not by extending the changes to all states, but by pushing the passage of a constitutional amendment that would replace the electoral-college system with a national popular vote. Already seven Blue states and the District of Columbia, representing a total of 135 electoral votes, have passed legislation agreeing to the allocation of their electoral votes in accordance with the national popular vote—once states representing 270 electoral votes have passed similar legislation.

A national popular vote for president would give Democratic candidates a tremendous initial advantage and an increasingly insurmountable advantage. Beyond escalating general efforts to increase the registration of eligible voters and the turnout of registered voters, the Democrats would have great incentives to focus of turnout in about a dozen very populous states. Right now, Democrats focus on turnout only in very contested districts in such populous and solidly Blue states as California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey. If every vote counted, the Democratic vote totals in those states would balloon. In addition, demographics are working against the GOP in some large and currently Red states. Nevada has already gone Blue, Colorado is Purple but trending increasingly Blue, and North Carolina is becoming increasingly Purple. If current population projections hold true, within the next decade, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas will be Purple and starting to trend Blue. Even if that were not the case, the current GOP domination of Texas, in particular, has clearly depressed Democratic turnout in that state, and yet Obama received more than 3,300,000 votes in Texas—more than he received in any state other than California, New York, and Illinois—even though he lost the Lone Star State by almost 16%, or about 1.2 million votes.

Likewise, across the Deep South, GOP majorities have suppressed registration and turnout by large African-American minorities and by the dramatically increasing Hispanic population. If every vote counted, the GOP margins in across the Deep South would almost certainly begin to shrink and then keep shrinking.

Unfortunately for the GOP, their strongholds in the Great Plains and the Intermountain West—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho have nationally insignificant populations, and although the percentage of population growth in North Dakota, Utah, and Idaho has been dramatic, none of these states still has a population larger than that of the cities of New York or Los Angeles, and if one expands the comparison from cities to metropolitan areas, fourteen metropolitan areas in the U.S. have larger populations than any of those states.

One final paradox is worth considering here. One might assume that the broader and more diverse a party’s base becomes, the more likely it is to spawn “third-party” competitors from its own end of the political spectrum. But, in many cases, the opposite is true: the more narrowly doctrinaire a party becomes, the more likely it is to breed dissenters among its “true believers”—that is, candidates for the truer “true believers.” For every George Wallace, who represented a Southern protest against an increasingly urban and racially diverse Democratic Party, there is a Ross Perot, whose appeal somehow rested on the competing assumptions that he was both a bigger populist and a better technocrat than George H. W. Bush.

If the 2012 election provides any indicators of what is to come, the GOP seems much more likely to face significant challenges from its Libertarian and segregationist elements than the Democratic party may face from Green or other progressive third parties.

2 thoughts on “Rigging an Election Is Possible, But Trying to Rig an Electoral System Is a Fool’s Errand

  1. Pingback: “Rigging an Election Is Possible, But Trying to Rig an Electoral System Is a Fool’s Errand” | Election Law Blog

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