Why an Electoral College by Districts Won’t Happen

by Fred Schwarz

Every four years, after another presidential election in which some states are besieged with suitors like Penelope while others are lucky to get an airport stopover from the running mate’s brother-in-law, the nation undergoes a spasm of Electoral College reform fever. The creaky old relic with which we choose our presidents has a number of oddities, but the feature that draws the most criticism is the winner-take-all rule — which, though not mandatory, is nearly universal — under which the candidate who gets the most popular votes in a state wins all of that state’s electors.

The reform most commonly advanced (at least, by those who ignore the siren song of a direct popular vote) is voting by districts: A constitutional amendment* requiring states to let each congressional district choose its own presidential elector, with a bonus of two electors going to the winner of the state as a whole. (Maine and Nebraska already use this system.) This would solve most of the distortions caused by winner-take-all, but might it have problems of its own? And would those problems keep it from being enacted?

The greatest opposition to voting by districts would probably come from the House of Representatives — and not just one party or ideology. It would leave all House members less able to influence gerrymandering: When the time came to redraw district lines, a state’s legislature would have to take into account both presidential elections and congressional elections, and the differing requirements of the two could result in conflicts.

In particular, congressmen from “majority minority” districts would fight the intrusion of any interests besides their own in the drawing of district lines. So would the GOP, because such ultra-Democratic districts leave fewer Democrats elsewhere, meaning that more Republicans get elected; it’s been estimated that the mandate to protect minority incumbents gives the GOP at least a dozen more seats than they would have in a neutral districting system. That’s why a Republican/minority coalition renewed the Voting Rights Act for 25 years in 2006. So under an Electoral College by congressional districts, Democrats would face a choice between extending this handicap to presidential elections (by retaining majority-minority districts) and angering their minority base (by breaking them up).

Another side effect: Election by districts would give small states even more influence. There are seven states that send a single member to the House of Representatives: Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska. This means that in an election by districts, there would be 8 three-elector jurisdictions, where winning the jurisdiction gets you three electors (these seven states plus the District of Columbia); 43 two-elector jurisdictions (the states with more than one House member); and 428 one-elector jurisdictions (the individual districts from these 43 states). So the small-population states would become the biggest prizes.

One obvious solution would be to draw up a new set of districts for presidential electors (indeed, you could abandon the vestigial winner-takes-two rule and divide each state into a number of districts equal to its representatives plus senators). But would that be any better than winner-take-all? With the new technology for targeting individual voters, every four years there would be 43 (or 51) revised sets of mega-gerrymandered districts with fractal borders, each of which would be subject to challenge in court. Is that the kind of democracy we want?

Election by districts is probably the least bad option for preserving the Electoral College, but the things that make it better for democracy also make it unlikely to pass the House, and, like every Electoral College reform scheme, it would create problems of its own.

* Piecemeal action by individual states, as suggested by this reader, is also possible, but (a) since switching to election by districts would reduce a state’s influence and require the dominant party (if there is one) to give away electoral votes to the opposition, it is unlikely to happen in many places, and (b) if done as a tactical move, it would be subject to reversal each time the legislature flipped.

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