What’s in a number? How Romney could have been President

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By Matt Haldane

Copper Area News

A recent push in Virginia to apportion electoral votes by district instead of relying on its current winner-take-all system in presidential elections has revived a debate that has been off and on for much of the United States’ history: What is the fairest way to elect the President of the United States?

Many American voters dislike the United States Electoral College. While few people can make sense of why the U.S. does not rely on the national popular vote to determine the president, changing the Constitution is a tough and controversial thing to do.

Smaller states have traditionally liked the idea of the Electoral College because it gives them a proportionally larger voice in the election. States with fewer people have a larger share of electoral votes per person. What has emerged, however, is tight and tense campaigning in a small number of “battle ground” or “swing” states. This has left people wondering whether Maine and Nebraska have the right idea by divvying up their votes by congressional district and giving their remaining two electoral votes, one for each senator, to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

Virginia State Senator Bill Carrico might have had fairness in mind when he proposed a bill to do something similar, but concerns about a Republican power grab may have ultimately killed the bill. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have also considered similar bills and they, like Virginia, all have Republican governors in states that voted for President Barack Obama last November. Such an apportionment of electoral votes would have benefited Mitt Romney in states where he received no electoral votes, but in Arizona, Obama would have walked away with at least three additional votes.

An important difference in the Virginia bill compared with how Maine and Nebraska operate is that Carrico sought to give the remaining two votes to the candidate who won the most districts instead of the popular vote. That would have given Romney nine of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes. However, even if the last two votes were given to the popular vote winner, an amendment offered by Carrico before the bill was killed, Virginia still would have given seven votes to Romney and six to Obama. In fact, if the whole country operated under that system, Romney would have won the election 276 to 262, according to an estimate by political scientist Alan Abramowitz at the Center for Politics.

Completely accurate numbers for congressional district results can be hard to parse out since most states do not report those numbers for the presidential election. The numbers are not relevant to states that operate under a winner-take-all system unless, of course, someone is trying to figure out the impact of switching to a different system.

The advantage for Romney is not surprising given that rural areas tend to favor the Republican candidate. The U.S. looks very red or Republican when looking at maps color-coded by county. Counties are smaller than congressional districts and might better represent voting trends in rural areas.

Democrats, however, have a strong advantage in urban areas, where 80.7 percent of the country’s population resides, according to the 2010 census. Urbanized areas, classified by the Census Bureau as urban areas with 50,000 or more people, make up 71.2 percent of the population. A switch to the congressional district method would give rural voters a bigger advantage in the Electoral College than what they have currently.

While Arizona has had relatively slim margins in the popular vote in recent general elections, the state remains a Republican stronghold. According to The Atlantic, Phoenix is one of the few major cities to vote for Romney in 2012, joining Oklahoma City, Fort Worth and Salt Lake City. The state also has a Republican state legislature and a Republican governor. There does not seem to be much support for divvying up votes by district.

“The major complaint I hear is (voters) want it to be the popular vote,” said State Senator Barbara McGuire, a Democrat from Legislative District 8. “They’re discontent for the most part with the electoral vote process.”

McGuire was not convinced that Democrats taking away some votes in Arizona would be a net positive.

“I don’t see that there would be an advantage,” she said, adding that the decision is ultimately up to the voters. “If voters want this changed, then it’s something that they’re going to have to push for collectively.”

Ultimately, fairness is hard to gauge. Voting by district would get rid of the swing state dynamic, but it would create swing districts. There would be many more competitive districts than there are states and voters might feel like their vote matters more if the candidate they want to win just has to win their district.

Campaigning would also be altered. Presidential candidates would likely start to focus on certain districts rather than certain states. This might make gerrymandering, or manipulating redistricting to favor a certain party, even more competitive.

Arizona redistricting is handled by an independent commission, but in 2011, Governor Jan Brewer and the state senate threw out the commission leader Chairwoman Colleen Mathis for gross misconduct. By November of that year, the Arizona Supreme Court had overturned that decision, reinstating Mathis. Arizona redistricting might be less partisan than in other states as a result, but the fairness of the congressional district method remains an open question.

A study out of the Department of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University claims that apportionment by district is actually less fair to the candidates as it reinforces a partisan bias that is statistically insignificant under our current model or a popular vote. The authors note, though, that “voters in states that strongly favor one candidate might have plenty to gain by changing to a district-based method, if their districts are suitably competitive, just as voters in competitive states might have far less impact if they live in an uncompetitive district and this change were made.”

For now, the move toward district apportionment seems to have subsided. The bill in Virginia is dead and Representative Paul Ryan has come out against any similar changes in Wisconsin. Any momentum the movement once had is gone.

It remains a rare event that the winner of the popular vote does not also get a majority of the electoral votes. McGuire said there is no movement in the Arizona Senate to change the electoral process here. She made it clear that the choice should be left to the voters, but who wants the change?

“My opinion is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” McGuire said.

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