You don’t hijack the electoral college; the electoral college hijacks you

By Seth Studer

Mother Jones reported today the answer to a headline it published two years ago – “Who’s Paying for the GOP’s Plan to Hijack the 2012 Election?” The answer? The Koch Brothers! Once again, the plot leads back to the Koch Brothers – the Moriarty to the activist left’s, uh, Sherlock? (Better analogy: the Mr. Burns to the activist left’s Lisa). But the plot takes a rather circuitous route through various nonprofits and a few election-year pop-up organizations. The link to the Kochs is not as clear-cut as MJ’s headlines suggest. And even when it is, the indictment isn’t exactly stirring: “Charles and David Koch,” MJ reporter Mariah Blake writes, “footed at least some of the bill.”

The backstory: in mid-2011, conservative groups invested roughly $300,000 and applied conservative group pressure to the Republican-controlled Wisconsin and Pennsylvania legislatures, pressuring them to join what I’ll call the Divide-by-District Club.

Here are some facts about the Divide-by-District (DBD) Club:

Membership requirements: be a U.S. state.

Current members: Maine and Nebraska.

Club Rules: you must award your electoral votes by congressional district, not as a winner-take-all state. Luckily, each state has one vote per district (plus two extra votes for those wise old senators in Washington – in electoral math, one wise old senator = more than 700,000 normal people). After the state has parceled out a vote to each district, the districts award their single vote to the presidential candidate who won their district. Every ten years, your state gets the chance to acquire or lose districts.

Club Benefits: your state basically owns your districts, and so the majority party in your state’s congress controls nearly all decisions regarding districts, including their area and constitution. In 2011, Republicans were the majority party in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Associates: other states are essentially members of the DBD Club, not because they chose to be but because their respective populations would barely constitute a medium-sized city. For them, “state” and “congressional district” are one and the same: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Rhode Island will almost certainly join the Club after the next census; Hawaii might, too. (The District of Columbia’s membership status is…difficult to determine.)


So Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes by district. Barack Obama made history in 2008 as the first modern candidate to electorally divide a state. He won Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (which is essentially coterminous with Omaha and its suburbs), despite getting walloped by John McCain in the rest of the Cornhusker State (41% to 56%). But beyond an election nerd’s delight watching Omaha – a tiny area on the state’s eastern edge – “split away” from the rest of Nebraska, the 2nd district meant squat. That extra point didn’t push health care reform through Congress or kill Osama bin Laden (or, if you like, heartlessly murder four people in Benghazi). It only meant that Omaha is, like all cities, more liberal than the state it inhabits.

Nebraska currently has five electoral votes, three of which can be split between candidates. Maine has four, two to split. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has 10. Pennsylvania, 20. If the Koch’s Plot had succeeded, these Republican legislators would have given Mitt Romney three of Wisconsin’s 10 votes and 14 of Pennsylvania’s 20 votes. That’s 17 extra electoral votes for Romney.

Obama smiles, for good reason, even after Romney defeated him in 14 of Pennsylvania's 18 districts.
Obama smiles, for good reason, even after Romney defeated him in 14 of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts. Districts don’t count.

BTW: how did Romney win 14 of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts but lose the state’s popular vote? Three of Obama’s four (only four!district victories were massive landslides (he captured nearly 90% in one district and still underperformed his 2008 tallies). Romney’s wins were narrow by comparison (usually below 55%). So despite winning a meager 22% of the districts, Obama got more votes. Under the DBD system, however, Obama would have been creamed – Romney’s victory in Pennsylvania would have been a landslide.

So what does it all add up to? If the Koch Brothers’ alleged surrogates had been successful in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Obama would have won 315 (instead of 332) electoral votes on November 6. Romney would have won a respectable 223 (instead of 206), losing the presidency and returning to life in his father’s shadow.

In other words, the Koch Brothers would have changed history forever.

No seriously – they might have. And they might have swung the election to Romney. But eventually, invariably, they’d regret their decision.

[ASIDE: $300,000 is essentially pennies to the Koch Brothers, so to view this scheme as a major investment is misguided; if they were actually involved, I don’t think they took the idea very seriously. Another Mother Jones article referred to all these Republican plans to split their states as “shenanigans,” not serious talk.]

First, the Koch Brothers were funding DBD legislation in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania way back in 2011, when an Obama defeat seemed possible, and a narrow Obama victory seemed even more possible. In such situations, 17 electoral votes can mean a lot. (The majority of states have fewer than 10 electoral votes.) If the Kochs had successfully changed election laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, they would have essentially given Romney a superstate with the population of North Carolina and more electoral votes than Michigan or Georgia. (In case you don’t know, those are big states.)

The 2012 election: one of those maps that CORRECTLY indicates "Democrat" with red and "Republican" with blue - the colors that historically indicate "left" and "right" in democratic nations.
The 2012 election: one of those maps that CORRECTLY indicates “Democrat” with red and “Republican” with blue – the colors that historically indicate “left” and “right” in democratic nations.

Even if Obama still won the election, they’ve made Generic Republican’s path to victory in 2016 a little easier. But they’ve also effectively created a monster. Obama won the popular vote in Pennsylvania (52% to 46%), but in the Koch system, Romney would have essentially won the state (14 to 6!). And this would happen again and again, in every presidential cycle: a handful of little Bush v. Gores every four years.

But that leads to point two: why is a state better than a district? If anything, a congressional district is a truer expression of the people’s will vis a vis the federal government. What’s so special about states? Historically, the winner of the national popular vote almost always wins the electoral college, even if you retroactively apply the DBD rules. As many political historians noted after the uproar over the 2000 election, the system works 98% of the time. 

Of course, a popular vote would work 100% of the time, if full representation is what you’re aiming for. But let’s assume we’re stuck with the electoral college. Dividing by districts is, arguably, a better way to distribute electoral votes. People whose voices have historically been ignored – large political minorities in California, Texas, and Illinois – would suddenly appear on the magic election night map.

Getting a jump on those STEM fields!
Romney, getting a jump on those STEM fields

And to be fair, Mother Jones‘s alarm at conservative meddling is probably separate from its writers’ feelings about a district-based electoral college. What troubles Mother Jones is that powerful conservatives used (and, more horrifically, funded) political mechanizations to unseat Barack Obama. And if those powerful conservatives had been victorious – if those 17 votes somehow lodged Romney into the White House – half the country would be screaming “foul!”

But even if efforts to divide up Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were funded by shadowy Republican billionaires, it’s still a (potentially) good idea. Do the Koch Brothers care about the integrity of American elections? Maybe not. But, motives aside, they’re advocating legitimate democratic reforms with cash. This, and almost everything else unseemly about the 2012 election, is far less appalling than the tactics employed by Bush allies in South Carolina and Florida in 2000. Apart from their persistent desire to hide most of their political contributions (I guess if money is speech, they’re the equivalent of Anonymous), the Koch Brothers have nothing to be ashamed of – they were funding a noble cause! And in the end, Obama would still be president. Plus we’d have a 17-electoral vote monster, one that would inevitably turn on its creators (the Brothers Koch, Republicans, conservatives, whoever). Because if history is any indicator, U.S. political parties are especially susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. Cases in point:

  • Republicans in the 1940s supported the presidential term limit. They foresaw a long cascade of New Deal presidents queueing up into the 21st century. They couldn’t envision Republican majorities springing at record pace from the wombs of all those veterans’ wives, all of them voting to cut income taxes by divisions of three.
  • The post-1968 primary reforms, overseen by George McGovern, helped Richard Nixon manipulate the Democratic primary process, effectively choose his candidate (McGovern), and then eviscerate him. In the long run, these reforms have arguably resulted in longer, uglier, more costly primary races. (This almost certainly cost ardent McGovern supporter Hillary Clinton the White House in 2008.)
  • Democrats wailed about defending the integrity of the electoral college back in October 2000, when polls indicated that George W. Bush might win the popular vote but not capture 270 electoral votes.

– Citizens United, the apparent fruition of years of conservative efforts to conflate speech and money, helped Obama win the White House a second time, and will invariably help elect future leftist lawmakers who devise genuine campaign finance reform.

Radical changes implemented for political gain invariably backfire, and sooner rather than later. Conservatives who yearn for those Republican districts in California will feel the sting of those large, mostly Hispanic Democratic districts in Texas. They’ll certainly discover how many blue districts you can squeeze into all those dense, red-state cities (“they look so small on the map!”). And Democrats will discover how many large, rural districts stretch out across New York and Illinois. Why would anyone spend money for that? Two hundred twenty-three years of political meddling should have taught them this much: you don’t hijack the American political system. It hijacks you.

One thought on “You don’t hijack the electoral college; the electoral college hijacks you”

  1. Another historical backfire I didn’t list: whenever the franchise has been broadened in the U.S., usually the work of progressive policymakers, the following presidential election is typically won by the less progressive candidate.

    This happened in 1920 after women finally received the franchise nation-wide; it happened in 1968 after blacks secured the right to vote without recrimination; and, most hilariously (depending on who you ask), it happened in 1972, after an army of newly registered 18-, 19-, and 20-year old voters was supposed to pose a serious challenge to Nixon. (I think Nixon actually won the youth vote – don’t quote me on that.)

    One of the times it didn’t happen: 1872, after black men ostensibly won the right to vote. Grant, the more “progressive” choice (insofar as we can superimpose that term that far back), won easily. But black enfranchisement was wildly inconsistent – it existed everywhere legally, was actively encouraged in some places, but was effectively suppressed in many/most places (incl. the Deep South until 1965).


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