Representative Democracy

This is sort of a response (though not really a rebuttal) to Burt’s front-page post, and sort of my own meanderings. Burt writes:

Forgive me if I’m less than impressed with the notion that this would completely de-legitimize any Presidential election in which a Republican happened to win. After all, I can foresee that district-level allocation would result in fewer campaign resources being put in to a state certain to be divided — Virginia could be diminishing rather than enhancing its role as a key player in Presidential politics by splitting its 13 electoral votes roughly down the middle — if the Republican is going to get not fewer than 5 votes and the Democrat not fewer than 4, then only 4 and not 13 votes are in play, so it’s not as much of a prize.

You see, the fear on the part of Democrats, and the hope on the part of Republicans, comes from the fact that by virtue of controlling a majority of state legislatures at the point in the electoral cycle when redistricting happens, Republicans have gerrymandered themselves into a majority of Congressional districts. The assumption is that election results on a district-by-district basis will roughly parallel elections to the House. Which means Republicans will have a “locked in” advantage of thirty-three votes because the 2012 Congressional elections returned 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats.

In 2012, Barack Obama won 27 jurisdictions (26 states and D.C.) and Mitt Romney won 24, so that means that the Electoral College results of 255 votes for Obama and 282 votes for Romney, notwithstanding that the popular vote was very much in Obama’s favor. And that will be how every election for the remaining duration of the Republic will turn out. (There, I just spared you reading the article on Larry Sabato’s blog.)

The danger, it seems to me, is the redefining of the acceptable. No, Maine and Nebraska don’t make much of a difference. No, Virginia on its own won’t make much of a difference. But once the precedent is set, it’s really hard to take back. Perhaps the most optimistic things that can be said about it are that (a) it won’t spread or (b) that it will lead to a collapse of the electoral college as a whole. The former is hardly a ringing endorsement because the possibility that it might be wrong far could be catastrophic to the system. The latter depends on much to come to fruition, and supposes that the electoral college is so bad that it’s worth getting worse for the possibility of it getting better.

If put to referendum, I would vote to do away with the Electoral College tomorrow. But… I don’t consider it to be evil. I consider the cons to outweigh the pros. There are advantages insofar as it prevents a Republican from winning by running up extreme victories in the south and it prevents Democrats from winning by running up high totals in urban areas. It also forces candidates to spend time away from urban and suburban areas, which I do not altogether consider to be a bad thing. But the breaking down of an election to a select number of states has a distorting effect that outweighs those advantages.

There is also something to be said for election-by-district. There is nothing, in theory wrong with splitting votes by legislative districts. The parliamentary system works with a similar dynamic (a candidate can lose the “popular vote” but still wind up being Prime Minister). However, the totality of events and factors relating to Virginia in particular make their actions nothing short of reprehensible. It’s indefensible. I can come up with rationales for a lot of things, but not this. Gerrymandering may be old hat, and district-based allocation are nothing new, and holding a vote based on who is and is not in the state is not unheard of… but this is all of those things and more.

I am less skeptical than Burt is that the Electoral College is now and always. Because it sometimes advantages one party and sometimes the other, a couple rapid-succession flipped votes could lead to a consensus. Because one party is more predisposed to support it than another, if the supporting party is on the losing end and the opposing party has a long enough view to know that it won’t be to their benefit forever – or if they are given something in return (such as DC statehood), I could see it happening. And lastly, if few enough states become competitive, you might get the 3/4 of states you need right there. Or the NPV initiative could work and you’d only need enough states to get to 270 and large states Republican and Democrat have incentives here. All of this is unlikely, but not impossible. (We’re pretty much debating between a 0% likelihood and a 3% likelihood, but what are blogs for if not debating this sort of thing?)

The last thing I wanted to mention is that even if you put gerrymandering aside, district-based voting favors Republicans and will for the foreseeable future. The reason being that rural voters are not as Republican as core urban voters are Democratic. There are only a couple counties in the entire country that vote as Republican as DC does Democratic. I am relatively certain that if you look at individual precincts, you’d see more Republican ones, but wider margins in the Democratic ones (including some with no Republican voters, it turns out). So because of this, even without gerrymandering, there is a stacking of the deck in favor of Republicans. This is something that we should keep in mind: gerrymandering isn’t the only problem here. This is an area where the Republicans can act and the Democrats are simply incapable of responding in kind.

There are a number of ways to skin a deer. Debating between them is a rivalry of concepts of fairness, for which there is no singular, objective answer. But I struggle to come up with a single manner in which what Virginia is doing can be justified. The best we can hope for is that it fails. The next best thing is trying to keep it as contained as possible.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. What’s amazing about the scheme is that it’s more byzantine that even authoritarian regimes wouldn’t try it…essentially it’s “even Vlad Putin would balk at it.”

    • It’s the extra two votes for whomever wins the most districts, isn’t it?

      Honestly, they should have just gone for what they really wanted — whomever won the most districts got all the EC votes.

      You already have the bill’s sponser saying the bill is necessary because “too many people” in some districts are drowing out smaller districts. So you need to bias it towards the districts with less people.

      So, you know, “fewer people” get an equal say as “more people”. Otherwise it’s just not fair.

      One man, one vote? Not when the wrong guy wins.

      • It’s the extra two votes for whomever wins the most districts, isn’t it?

        The extra two votes really gave the game away, as far as I was concerned. Just about anything can be justified on some level (at least in a vacuum), but not that.

        One man, one vote? Not when the wrong guy wins.

        OMOV has its limitations…

  2. Not the way they want to count it. They’re not splitting the EC vote by %, they’re splitting it — and there are a lot more Republican districts.

    Which means, just to make up numbers, if there are 4 million voters and 2 million (in 2 districts) voted D and 2 million (in 10) voted R, they’ll D’s would get 2, R’s would get 10 and then 2 more for winning the ‘majority’ of districts.

    So you’ll get…2 EC for 2 million Ds, and 12 EC votes for 2 million R’s. The R’s, per person, are getting more of a vote.

    It’s not by SIZE — it’s by NUMBER OF DISTRICTS. In the example above, the R districts are counting each vote like it’s worth 6 of the D voters.

    The actual ratio appears closer to 2 to 1, but that’s still the end result. There were slightly more Democratic voters than Republican voters, but the end result under this scheme is a lot more EC votes for the Republicans — meaning each Republican voter’s vote counted more than a Democrat’s vote.

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