When Democrats Wanted to Gerrymander the Electoral College

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 25 2013 3:16 PM

When Democrats Wanted to Gerrymander the Electoral College

Benjy Sarlin talks to the Democrats who used to like the idea of splitting up Virginia's electoral votes, back when the state consistently went Republican. I'd totally forgotten that I'd talked to the Democrat who sponsored those bills, Vivan Watts, back in December -- but it was after deadline, so she missed my story.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"The motivation was the long history of Virginia as a whole," she said. "These last two elections were competitive. We counted. It  was a totally different picture than from 1968 on, when we were totally ignored."

This isn't actually true; Jimmy Carter came within 24,000 votes of winning Virginia in 1976. But Watts felt that "the dversity of the state was never reflected in the electoral vote. My motivation was more robust partipitation in elections. My goal was getting candidates to campaign here, and that's been achieved because of the two elections we've had."

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What did Watts think of the Republican argument, that a vote split would help the outnumbered rural voters find a voice? "From 1968 to 2004, it was exactly the opposite," she said. "The urban areas of the state had no voice. Without robust campaigning, they had no voice. I do not think we're going to slip back into the backwaters of not having competitive elections here. Who knows what will happen with these campaigns in the future?"

I didn't find this convincing at all. But boy, the conservative opinion-mongering in support of this is supersonically lousy. William Jacobson, last seen falsely accusing Elizabeth Warren of abusing her law license, makes the argument in its simplest form.

As things stand now, the Electoral College favors Democrats because they are all but guaranteed to win a small number of large winner take all states, such as California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, plus a coalition of hopelessly blue states.
Democrats start off close to victory because of winner-take-all voting in those states, even if they win those states by a small margin in each state. The system currently is “rigged” to favor Democrats, if you want to look at it that way.

Well, one difference between assigning electors for states, and assigning them for gerrymandered congressional districts, is that Democrats don't get to re-shape the states every 10 years to squeeze out electoral advantages. All but one of the states mentioned by Jacobson (New York) went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988. All of them have elected Republican governors since then. The national Republican Party has bled support from moderate suburban voters and lost even more from non-white voters, but more moderate Republicans -- California's Schwarzenegger, Michigan's Snyder, New Jersey's Whitman and Christie -- have treated these electorates like they're worth winning, and been rewarded.

There's an ominous strain in conservative support (limited as it is) for the gerrymander campaign. It starts with this assumption: Democratic voters are "takers," who will always support candidates who redistribute wealth away from Republican voters. It continues with the assumption that Democrats constantly commit massive amounts of urban voter fraud. You can see how this worldview would make you despondent, and want to rig the rules against the winners.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.