Despite Wisconsin residents overwhelmingly voting for Democrats in the 2012 elections — sending progressive powerhouse Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate and reelecting President Barack Obama by 6.8 points — five of the state’s eight newly-drawn congressional districts voted out of sync with the majority of Wisconsinites and went for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. This is largely because the GOP reworked congressional maps to their party’s benefit during the redistricting process that followed the 2010 census and elections. Now, Republicans in Wisconsin are discussing plans to allocate the state’s electoral college votes according to these new Congressional districts, giving the GOP a chance for victory in a state that has elected Democrats in each of the past seven Presidential elections.
Gov. Scott Walker recently expressed support for awarding presidential elector votes by Congressional district rather than statewide totals, incoming Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has sponsored legislation to make such a change in past sessions, and Republican legislators introduced a bill to do this in 2011. As Mother Jones reported, Pennsylvania Republicans considered similar legislation last year, and are again considering such a plan to rig the electoral college. Republican legislators in Michigan also plan to introduce legislation.
All three states voted for Obama in November, but a majority of congressional districts in those states went for Romney. State government in all three is controlled by Republicans who redrew congressional maps during the last legislative session.
“If each Congressional district has equal weight, Republicans would win much more easily because they carry more Republican districts,” said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause Wisconsin. “If they move forward with this, it would be clear to many that Republicans were really trying to win in an unfair way.”
After the 2010 GOP electoral surge, Republicans had new majorities in many statehouses and have been able to re-draw Congressional districts to favor their party. Largely thanks to those new maps, the GOP kept control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2012 elections, despite 1.1 million more Americans voting for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.
Republicans are not discussing changes to electoral allocation in solidly red states, but only in Democrat-leaning states whose congressional maps were recently gerrymandered to benefit the GOP — and if these states allocated their electoral votes according to Congressional district the presidential race could have a similarly disparate outcome.
Proposal Would Change Electoral Vote Allocation from Popular Totals to Allotment by Congressional District
Presidential elections are decided on a state-by-state basis, with candidates jockeying to secure at least 270 of the country’s 538 electoral votes (divided among the 50 states based on the size of its Congressional delegation, with the District of Columbia also getting 3 votes). All but two states currently award their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes statewide.
The proposals discussed in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan would allocate one electoral vote for each congressional district won by a presidential candidate, with the two remaining votes going to the winner of the statewide vote. Such a proposal has been implemented in Nebraska and Maine, but both are low-population states with small electoral vote totals, meaning it is mathematically impossible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote. Not so for Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
If Wisconsin had such a plan in place for the 2012 elections, the state’s ten electoral college votes would have been split evenly between Obama and Romney, despite Obama winning in the state by nearly seven points. Five electoral votes would have gone to Romney because he won the majority in five congressional districts, with three to Obama since he won the majority in three congressional districts plus two more for winning the statewide vote.
Romney would have fared even better in the other two states, as he won nine of Michigan’s 14 districts and at least 12 of 18 in Pennsylvania, despite losing a majority of votes in those states. Under the proposed plan, Romney would have emerged from these three Democratic states with 26 electoral votes, compared with just 19 for Obama.
“Any citizen would look at this and ask, ‘if the Democrat gets more popular votes, how is it that the Republican can get [the same or] more electoral votes in a state?” said Heck. “It doesn’t make any sense to anyone besides the most extreme partisan.”
Wisconsin’s “Shameful” Redistricting Warps Electoral Outcomes
In past decades, courts had largely drawn Wisconsin’s maps because no single party controlled state government. But after Republicans took control of the Senate, House, and Governor’s mansion in the 2010 elections, they were in a position to single-handedly draw and approve legislative boundaries that benefited their party. As ProPublica recently reported, in Wisconsin and elsewhere a network of corporate and “dark money” funders spent tens of millions to influence state races in 2010 and then engineer the gerrymandered maps.
The highly partisan American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was also involved in redistricting. It pushed redistricting approaches spearheaded by the former lawyer for the national Republican Party, Mark Braden, and hosted a special conference call with that partisan lawyer to advise ALEC legislators on redistricting. It does not appear Democrats were invited to attend this secret meeting.
Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were sharply criticized for developing the maps under a veil of secrecy and shutting the public out of the process, with a court that heard a redistricting challenge describing the process as “shameful,” “sharply partisan,” and “needlessly secret.”
Those new maps have nonetheless taken effect, and the majority of Congressional districts are now out-of-step with statewide voting patterns.
In some districts this is a consequence of how population is dispersed. The state’s urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison are heavily Democratic and suburban Waukesha is solidly Republican. But the redistricting process is also to blame, largely by the Republicans who drafted the map moving Democrats out of swing districts and into areas that were already solidly blue.
This was particularly the case in the 7th District, where Republicans went to great lengths to help first-term Congressman (and former reality TV star) Sean Duffy keep the seat that had previously been held by Democrat Dave Obey for 21 consecutive terms, from 1969 until his retirement in 2011. The district had previously been evenly divided in its partisan makeup, but during redistricting Republicans moved three Democratic-leaning cities out of the 7th District to make it solidly Republican. In past presidential elections the district closely reflected the statewide vote, but in 2012, it voted five points more for Republicans than the state as a whole.
If Wisconsin were to change the way its electoral votes are allocated the 7th District would be another point in the GOP category.
GOP Statehouse Majorities Make Electoral Vote Change Possible
Newly-drawn maps in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania not only helped Republicans on the Congressional level, but also helped cement GOP majorities in state legislative races — meaning the GOP will likely have the numbers to change how electoral votes are allocated if they move forward with these proposals.
Across Wisconsin, Democrats got more than 52% of the vote in the state’s 99 Assembly districts, but because of the newly-drawn maps, won just 39% of the seats. Democrats came away with 53% of the vote in the state Senate race but nonetheless lost two key seats. Coming into the 2013-2014 session Republicans again hold majorities in both the Senate and Assembly.
The proposed changes to how electoral votes will be allocated are only the latest effort by Wisconsin Republicans to twist the democratic process for partisan gain.
In addition to the “shameful” and “needlessly secret” redistricting process, in 2011 Republicans pushed through an ALEC-inspired voter ID law, which threatened to disenfranchise over 300,000 Wisconsin residents — largely people of color and students, populations that tend to vote for Democrats — but it was blocked by two judges as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. The ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin is now discussing amending the constitution to add a voter ID requirement, despite residents of neighboring Minnesota soundly rejecting such an effort last November.
In recent months, Walker and other legislators have voiced support for ending the longstanding Wisconsin law that allows voters to register on election day (even though Walker’s own son used same day registration in November to cast his vote). That law has helped the state achieve one of the highest turnout rates in the country but is perceived as helping Democratic voters exercise the franchise.
Heck predicts that it “would ultimately hurt [Republicans] to try something so blatantly unfair” as changing how electoral votes are assigned for partisan gain. “It would set off a firestorm of protest that we didn’t see for gerrymandering and voter ID,” he said.
“But if you have the votes you can ram anything through the legislature.”