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An inappropriate fix to an imperfect system

Republicans in four states want to tinker with electoral votes

Last week, Republican leaders gathered in Charlotte to discuss, in part, how their party’s philosophies and policies have led to two straight presidential election defeats. Elsewhere, Republicans are pursuing a less introspective path to electoral success: changing how votes are counted.

In at least four states, Republicans are proposing to apportion electoral votes by congressional district, instead of awarding the winning candidate all of that state’s electoral votes. In Virginia, state senators might vote on a plan this week, the Washington Post reported. In Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, lawmakers plan similar bills. Only Nebraska and Maine currently use the congressional district approach.

The four states considering it have something in common – they’re battleground states Barack Obama won in 2012. They’re also states with a majority of Republican lawmakers, many of whom believe awarding electoral votes based on congressional district could be favorable to future Republican presidential candidates. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney would have won nine out of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes – instead of zero – had the Republicans’ proposal been law.

In North Carolina, where Romney won 15 electoral votes last year, officials aren’t inclined now to pursue such a plan, the Observer reported. Had North Carolina operated under Virginia’s proposed rules, Romney would have won 12 to Obama’s three. But North Carolina’s demographics are changing, and lawmakers might at some point consider an electoral change to hedge against the state turning bluer as its urban populations continue to grow.

The Electoral College certainly has flaws. It makes heavily red and blue states irrelevant out of the gate each presidential election, because candidates don’t often visit areas where they’re shut out of winner-take-all electoral votes. Even in battleground states, there’s something incongruent about a candidate getting all the electoral love after winning by just a sliver.

But Virginia’s proposal is worse, because it subjects the Electoral College to the same redistricting politics and gerrymandered maps that mar state legislatures. Regardless of party, lawmakers love to craft districts that are a lock for their side, a practice that takes choice away from voters and discourages moderates from running. It’s not a coincidence that along with Virginia’s electoral proposal last week, lawmakers there also are considering a state Senate redistricting plan that heavily favors Republicans.

Both proposals are about gaming the system for votes, and although both parties have long engaged in the practice, Republicans have taken it to a new level since losing the presidential election in 2008. Across the country, including in North Carolina, Republicans have attempted to suppress Democratic votes with laws such as photo ID measures that attack a voter fraud problem research shows doesn’t exist at polling places.

If Republicans – or Democrats – want to change how their state’s electoral votes are counted, they should pair such a proposal with one that changes how congressional districts are drawn. In Iowa, for example, nonpartisan legislative staffers draw reasonable maps based on non-political criteria, and lawmakers take an up-or-down vote, with no tinkering. The result: competitive districts that offer a truer form of representative government.

We’re not holding our breath for that to happen here. But we’re glad that N.C., at least, is passing on making the Electoral College more imperfect than it already is.

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