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Can the Republicans gerrymander their way into the White House?

Republicans should stop focus on winning more support, not changing the electoral rules.

Even Paul Ryan opposes the Republicans' redistricting plans. Photography: Getty Images

It's the oldest electoral trick: if you don't like the result, change the rules. To some Republicans, it is central to their strategy for regaining the White House in 2016.

The term "gerrymandering" was coined in 1812, after Governor Gerry of Massachusetts redrew Congressional boundaries so unfairly it was said to resemble the salamander monster. Gerry's idea was simple: concentrate his opponents' support so they piled up a few huge majorities, while spreading his own party's out so they could win more districts, resulting in more Congressmen.

The same tactics have been a feature of US politics ever since - and it's only getting worse. Look at Slate's list of the 21 "most rigged" districts around today. It's certainly not just the Republicans at work: two of the worst examples - Illinois's fourth Congressional district and Maryland's third - are the result of Democrat-controlled state legislatures. But because the Republicans' mid-term win in 2010 coincided with redistricting following the census, their support was very efficiently distributed in 2012. In total, they won 234 House seats to the Democrats' 201 - even though the Democrats won the popular vote by 1.5 million. Imagine the outrage if this had been an African country.

So far the practice hasn't extended to presidential elections. With the exception of Nebraska and Maine (which only control nine of the 538 Electoral College votes between them), states award all their votes to the winner of the state overall. This may throw up anomalous results - like in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote while losing the presidency - but Congress-style gerrymandering is even worse. And that's exactly what Republicans are now proposing be replicated in the White House race.

In five crucial states that Obama won in 2012 - Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin - Republicans in the state legislatures have floated plans to award the state's electoral votes according to the winner of each Congressional district. It sort of makes sense - until you remember that the districts themselves reflect intricate gerrymandering. 

In Virginia, a bill to award electors by districts recently advanced through a subcommittee in the Virginia Senate, under which Mitt Romney would have won nine out of 13 electoral votes - even though Obama won the state by 150,000 votes. However, the Republican Governor of the state is strongly opposed, reasoning that this would dilute the attention - and money - that the swing state receives in presidential elections.

Pennsylvania is where the plans are most likely to transpire. Despite being regarded as a swing state, it hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican candidate since George Bush Sr in 1988. After years of trying, the Republicans look to be making progress towards changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes - ensuring that the party could win a significant amount of Pennsylvania's electoral college votes even without coming close to winning the state itself. While the results wouldn't be as egregious as in Virginia, the motives are equally clear.

Reince Priebus, the newly re-elected chair of the Republican National Committee, recently said he was "pretty intrigued" by the idea of states changing the way they award their electoral college votes and "in some cases they should look at it". It's easy to see the appeal for Republicans, with changing demographics meaning that the party's traditional coalition is no longer sufficient to win the presidency. Yet ultimately voters seldom reward parties so lacking in confidence in their own ideas that they appear more concerned with changing the rules; even Paul Ryan has spoken out against the plans. If Republicans want to win in 2016, they should focus on winning more support, not manipulating the electoral system.