Politics

01.26.13

Republicans’ Nefarious Election Ploy

Legislation in Virginia could set precedent for a change in electoral rules that would have handed the election to Mitt Romney. John Avlon on the outrageous scheme.

Something's rotten in Virginia.

Conservatives in the Old Dominion state legislature are quietly plotting what could amount to an electoral coup d’état: pushing forward a bill that would have delivered the majority of the state’s electoral votes to Mitt Romney, days after erasing a Democratic state Senate district in a surprise midsession redistricting.

In the wake of their decisive 2012 election defeat, Republicans aren’t digging the demographic changes making once-safe states like Virginia go for Obama the last two presidential elections. Their response, as Michael Tomasky detailed yesterday, is to try and change the rules to allow electoral votes to be split up by congressional districts, compounding their advantage created by the rigged system of redistricting. In many of the states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio—this is at the level of legislative discussion rather than action.

But in Virginia, facing a gubernatorial election this year, Republicans have gone much further than talk—they’ve put forward an actual bill for a vote. Their goal is to shift power back to conservative rural districts, splitting electoral votes by congressional districts and then allocating the two extra votes set aside for Senate seats to be awarded not by popular vote but by who won the highest number of congressional districts. Slate’s Dave Weigel, who was early to this story, calculated that if the proposed legislation were applied to the last presidential election, Mitt would have carried nine electoral votes and Obama just four, despite winning the state by 150,000 votes. If it were enacted in all the proposed swing states, President Romney would be in office today despite President Obama’s winning the popular vote by more than 5 million.

This is an inversion of the basic principle of democracy: that elections are won by the candidate who gets the most votes.

To add insult to the intended injury, Virginia humorist and political blogger Paul Bibeau pointed out that the bill would have the effect of making Obama voters count as three fifths of a person. God, or someone, has a sense of historic humor. Maybe some of the more evangelical members can take the hint—this is not a good or decent idea when seen with any sense of perspective.

Virginia Republicans have been on a ruthless tear in the past few weeks. On Inauguration Day, when Democratic state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III was attending the festivities in Washington, Republicans pushed through a surprise redistricting bill that passed along party lines—20 to 19. Marsh’s district would be carved up to create another African-American-dominated district in the vicinity of Richmond while essentially erasing a Democratic-controlled district in rural western Virginia currently held by former gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds.

The bill was proposed and pushed through with such speed that Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said he was taken by surprise but would reserve judgment on whether he would actually veto the bill. After outcry over the electoral scheme, his office said the governor opposed the larger change, a position aped by the current AG and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli—a telling head fake toward the center by one of the most extreme candidates in recent memory. If he actually becomes governor this fall, I’m willing to bet he’ll change his mind right quick.

Even if you don’t live in the Old Dominion state, this electoral drama matters—big time, because your vote could be invalidated with the White House at stake. Among other things, the naked power grab exposes the essential hypocrisy of the high-minded rhetoric that surrounded Republican voter fraud laws in the run-up to 2012 election—it was always, as critics said and Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai admitted, about nothing more than trying to win elections for their particular political team. There is no principle behind hyperpartisan politics.

But perhaps most importantly, this slumbering scandal in Virginia is a reminder that election reform really matters: change the rules and you change the game.

There’s a tendency for eyes to glaze over when the phrase “redistricting reform” comes up in conversation. But the Tea Party wave of 2010 was well timed from the perspective of Republicans who now realize that they are on the wrong side of demographic shifts. By putting conservatives in control of many state legislatures, the GOP was perfectly positioned to oversee the rigged system of redistricting that happens every 10 years, after the census taken at the start of the decade. As Democrats sometimes did in the past, they drew the maximum number of safe Republican seats. In the South, this meant largely resegregating politics—isolating Democrats to urban districts represented by African-American legislators while leaving Republicans to divvy up the rest of the state.   

This rigged system of redistricting is precisely why Republicans were able to keep control of the House of Representatives despite losing the congressional popular vote nationwide by 1.4 million votes. Take a look at John Boehner’s home state of Ohio as a case in point.  President Obama won the state by a 4 percent margin—166,214 votes in the final tally—but Republicans won 12 of 16 congressional seats. If the electoral-vote-splitting scheme were enacted in the Buckeye State, Obama would have lost the electoral vote despite winning the state. This is an outrage.  

I’m an advocate of election reform and think the electoral college has probably outlived its usefulness. But this particular “reform”—built squarely on the rigged system of redistricting—would only create further separation between the popular vote and who is elected president.   

It is also telling that conservatives opposed just such a reform in 2004, when Colorado had a ballot initiative that would have put forward proportional allocation of electoral votes. As ThinkProgress recently culled from the archives, then-Colorado Gov. Bill Owens penned a USA op-ed calling it a “transparently partisan movement” while a conservative group organized to call itself “Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea.” 

Situational ethics are rampant in hyperpartisan politics, but this proposal is a perversion of political reform—transparently cynical and self-interested. It is the mark of a desperate party trying to rig the election results to stay in power for as long as it can. If Republicans want to remain competitive in swing states, they should work harder to reach out beyond their conservative populist base. These sordid proposals are nothing more than a scam and a scheme with the American people as the intended mark and the White House as the glittering prize.