The GOP’s New Ideas on How to Marginalize Urban Voters

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 11 2012 6:52 PM

Choose Your Own Voters

The GOP is already plotting how to marginalize urban voters in the next election.

People celebrate in front of the White House with a cardboard cutout of the President Obama.
Republicans have a strategy to neutralize Democrats' urban advantage

Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.

In the busy mind of Virginia state Sen. Charles Carrico, voters can be divided into two species. The first: “people in my district,” which covers a swath of the state’s rural southwest. These voters are real people. The second species: voters in “metropolitan districts.” In 2012 and 2008, rural voters watched Democrats turn out that metro vote, which elected Barack Obama. That experience apparently taught Carrico and the people he represents that “their votes don’t mean anything.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Carrico’s solution: Make the rural vote matter more and make the metro vote count less. His bill, SB273, would assign 11 of Virginia’s electoral votes to its 11 congressional districts. The state’s two remaining votes would go to whoever received the “highest number of votes in a majority of congressional districts.”

Four of those 11 districts contain huge clusters of Democrats, and voted for Obama. The next seven districts, largely rural, voted for Mitt Romney. Had the Carrico proposal gone into effect this year, Romney would have lost Virginia’s popular vote by 4 points and carried nine of its 13 electors. The metro denizen’s vote would have still meant something, sure. It would have meant less than the vote of the angry coal miner in Appalachia.

When I heard about the Carrico proposal and called around, Democrats shrugged. Virginia Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, but they control the Senate only narrowly. Virginia voted Republican for 44 years until Barack Obama came along. Why would the party confidently tear up the map, if some 2016 savior could actually carry the whole state?

It’s a good question, but it wasn’t supposed to be asked this quickly. Republicans took control of Pennsylvania’s legislature in 2010, but not until September 2011 did they propose an electoral vote split. That failed, done in by public pressure and—probably more importantly—by Republican members of Congress worrying that it would goose the turnout against them.

Republicans escaped the 2012 election with continued control of most state houses and governor’s mansions. But this time the electoral vote rethink is happening more quickly. In Pennsylvania , there is a proposal to split electors by popular vote. In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted has mused that dividing the electoral vote by congressional district would make the election less messy. In every state, the rationale is the same—it’s just not fair for urbanites to swarm the polls and outvote everybody else. One week after the loss, Rep. Paul Ryan admitted his “surprise” at “some of the turnout, especially in urban areas, which gave President Obama the big margin to win this race.”

This is a totally understandable reaction to electoral tragedy. After George W. Bush won the 2004 election—literally, hours after that happened—a message board commenter presented a map of Canada and the United States reimagined as two new states. The “United States of Canada” brought together our northern neighbor and the states that voted for John Kerry. “Jesusland” represented the Bush states. It was a viral hit, especially among Americans who didn’t know much about Canada. (Alberta has more in common with Texas than it has with Minnesota.) A small group of self-parodying college professors wrote proposals for possible secessions.

You can still find these arguments on the left. In Better Off Without ’Em, published at the end of the summer, author Chuck Thompson argues that the fundamental and fundamentalist beliefs of white Southerners make them incompatible with enlightened democracy. “Just as the Civil War could have easily been avoided,” he writes, “so, too, might have the money and virtue pit of Iraq been sidestepped had not all the Armageddon bullshit and demagogic bluster about threats to 'our freedom' yet again worked their sinister magic on the hoi polloi.”

But Thompson has as much legislative power as the guy who upgrades you from cable to a satellite dish. All of the active discussions of electoral vote change-ups are coming from Republicans. They’re coming after a wave of redistricting which, in Republican-run states, generally packed Democrats close together and gave running room for the home team. In Ryan’s Wisconsin, the big urban vote that gave the state to Obama by 7 points didn’t actually affect Republicans running in congressional, House, and Senate districts. The Republican-run remapping of 2011, which will remain in effect until 2020, minimized the power of the cities by creating safe seats for Democrats. In Wisconsin, Democrats carried only three of eight House seats, 16 of 33 Senate seats, and 43 of 99 Assembly seats.

This isn’t just a matter of Republican survival. To some conservatives, it’s a matter of economic survival. The fear of mooching urban voters and college-town liberals is as old as Barack Obama himself. According to Stanley Kurtz, the author of Radical-in-Chief and Spreading the Wealth, Obama is using the powers of the federal government to pull people and money out of the suburbs and into the cities. “Although it remains almost totally unknown to the public,” writes Kurtz in the second book, “a great deal of Obama's early political career was devoted to the goal of abolishing America's suburbs, a project he undertook in close collaboration with his Alinskyite organizing mentors.” And the people who worked hard for their estates got outvoted by people who want to loot them.

I don’t think the overall urban vote backlash is quite so sophisticated. That hasn’t stanched its success. After the election, an AFL-CIO survey asked Obama voters and Romney voters how long they had to wait to vote. Only 9 percent of Romney’s people waited for 30 minutes or more. Sixteen percent of Obama’s voters had to wait that long. The reason for that, in the most closely-watched states like Ohio and Florida, was that the electoral rules and standards that worked smoothly for smaller rural precincts got clogged in busy urban precincts.

On Monday, as Sen. Carrico was talking up his bill, the Pew Research Center brought together a group of secretaries of state and campaign strategists. The topic: Whether the voting snafus of 2012 could be fixed. Democrats were interested. Republicans wanted to slow down and really think about this. Did urbanites have a harder time voting? Yes. Did that hurt Democrats? Well, sure.

“I don’t hold out any hope that there’s going to be a bipartisan agreement,” said Scott Tranter, who’d consulted for the Romney campaign. “At the end of the day, we’re all campaign officials, and we want to do whatever we can to help our side. Sometimes that’s voter ID. Sometimes that’s longer lines. Whatever it may be.”

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