FairVote, a non-partisan advocacy group, wants to radically transform the Electoral College through state legislation. So do Virginia Republicans pushing a scheme to reapportion their electoral votes by Congressional district. But the similarities end there as FairVote is condemning the Virginia bill as a partisan perversion of their own mission.
FairVote executive director Rob Richie described the Virginia plan as “an incredibly unfair and indefensible proposal” to TPM and said he was drafting a message to supporters rallying against its passage. He testified against a similar proposal in Pennsylvania, whose lawmakers briefly considered splitting its electoral votes for the 2012 election before backing down amid a public outcry against the maneuver.
Virginia’s bill, which emerged from a subcommittee on a tie vote Wednesday, would award the state’s electoral votes by individual congressional districts, with its two at-large electors going to whichever candidate won the most districts. But the districts, which were redrawn under Republican control in 2010, are so gerrymandered that President Obama would have won just four votes to Mitt Romney’s nine despite handily winning the state’s popular vote. As Richie noted, the result would be to massively water down Democratic votes concentrated into a few urban districts — many of them cast by African Americans — while boosting the impact of whiter and more rural districts.
“It is basically an obvious attempt by the Republican senator who proposed it and the Republicans who are backing it to completely distort the outcome of Virginia’s presidential electors,” Devin McCarthy, a research fellow for FairVote told TPM. “It would effectively guarantee Republicans at least 8 votes in Virginia no matter what happened in a national election, whereas this year they won 0.”
But the Virginia bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Carrico, evokes the same rhetoric as Electoral College reformers like Richie and McCarthy in pushing the legislation. In an interview with Slate’s Dave Weigel last month, Carrico complained that the Electoral College’s usual winner-take-all system diverted candidates’ attention toward more populated, urban portions of the state — whose votes apparently should count less in order to correct the imbalance.
“It comes down for me, as a rural legislator, to a fairness issue,” Carrico said. “I’m making sure the people of my district are represented.”
FairVote has complained about the electoral vote system’s winner-take-all method on a national level in similar terms, charging it with encouraging candidates to ignore safe states in favor of a handful of battleground states, and instead calling for a national popular vote to determine the president. But it’s also warned that states can’t disarm the system unilaterally without threatening basic principles of “one man, one vote” and making things even worse. That’s why its proposed fix is to pass state legislation giving each state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner but not having those laws take effect until after enough states to form a 270-electoral-vote majority signed on. So far eight states and the District of Columbia have passed bills that would activate should such a threshold be reached.
As Richie pointed out to TPM, Carrico’s arguments and similar ones from rural lawmakers in other Republican-controlled states don’t make sense on their own terms. Dividing Virginia’s electoral votes into individual districts would just recreate the same problems that safe states face on a national level.
“Because the statewide vote would be absolutely meaningless, the only political activity would be in the small number of districts where political activity might change the outcome,” Richie wrote.
That small number of competitive regions does not include Carrico’s ultra-conservative 9th District, meaning his constituents would almost certainly lose influence under his own plan even as they boosted the national GOP.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.