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The GOP's new strategy: Rig the game

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Their party and its agenda are deeply unpopular.
Screengrab from YouTube video
Screengrab from YouTube video

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Their party and its agenda are deeply unpopular. And demographic shifts will only make their task harder in the coming years, as minorities and young voters become an ever larger share of the electorate.

So what’s the GOP to do? Rig the game, of course.

Thanks to a remarkably successful gerrymandering operation carried out in the last two years, Republicans comfortably retained control of the House of Representatives last fall despite Democratic candidates winning nearly 1.4 million more votes. And now, the GOP is trying to mess with the rules of the Electoral College to get an anti-democratic leg up in the race for the White House.

“They’re increasingly desperate,” Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University and an expert on political demographics, told “In 2012, it was looking for ways to block minority voters. That didn’t work, so let’s try to rig the Electoral College. I think they understand that the situation facing them is very difficult, getting more difficult.”

On Wednesday, Virginia became the latest state to take up a Republican scheme that would change the way states award their Electoral College votes. Under the plan, which passed a Senate subcommittee on a party line vote, the state would award one electoral vote to the winner of each of its 11 congressional districts. Virginia’s remaining two electoral votes would go to the candidate who won more congressional districts.

Had the bill been law last fall, Mitt Romney would have won 9 of 13 Electoral Votes, despite losing the popular vote in the state by more than 140,000 votes.

“It comes down for me, as a rural legislator, to a fairness issue,” the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Bill Carrico, told Slate’s Dave Weigel last month. “I’m making sure the people of my district are represented.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell is yet to comment publicly on Carrico’s bill. His spokesman did not respond to two requests for comment from

It’s not just Virginia—the idea is fast catching on with the GOP nationwide. Republicans in Pennsylvania pushed a version of the scheme in 2011, and reintroduced it this year. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently called it “an interesting concept,” and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted flirted with the idea after last fall’s election. And the top-ranking GOPer in the country, RNC chair Reince Priebus recently called the plan “something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at,” because it “gives more local control” to states.

It’s easy to see why Priebus would feel that way. Had the scheme been in effect in those four states, as well as in Virginia and Florida, all six of which are controlled by the GOP—Romney would have been sworn in as president Monday, despite receiving nearly 5 million fewer votes than Obama across the country.

That’s no coincidence. Republicans like the scheme because it would give them a built-in advantage over Democrats. That’s because Democrats tend to be packed into a smaller number of districts, which they often win by huge margins, while Republicans are spread more evenly, giving them smaller majorities in a greater number of districts. So using the number of districts won as a way to determine Electoral Votes is about the best system you could devise for the GOP—never mind that, whatever Carrico and Preibus may say about "fairness" and "local control,"  it’s entirely arbitrary.

But Republicans want to make sure they retain that advantage in congressional districts—not just because it helps with the electoral vote scheme, but also because control of the House of Representatives is at stake. And that’s why, in recent years, they’ve also been drawing congressional district lines so as to give themselves an even bigger advantage on that score.

The Great GOP Gerrymander was enabled in part by the 2010 midterms, which gave Republicans a slew of statehouses and governorships around the country, including in large states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina. That let them control the redistricting process—by drawing the lines for each congressional district—for those states’ U.S. House seats, which occurs at the start of each decade.

A recent report by the Republican State Legislative Committee made the strategy explicit. “The rationale was straightforward,” the report states. “Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn.”

The result? Republicans so successfully drew the lines to their advantage that in order to win a House majority, Democrats would have needed to win the national popular vote by 7 percentage points, according to a report by the Center for American Progress released Wednesday.

Consider Pennsylvania, where the GOP won 18 House seats, despite losing the presidential vote by 5 percentage points. As Slate’s Weigel put it after the election: “The state's suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas have been rigged to be just outside the range where Democrats might win them.” It was a similar story in Ohio, where they won 12 of 16 seats, despite losing the presidential vote by 2 points, and in Michigan and North Carolina.

But Republicans aren’t done yet.  This week, Virginia GOPers waited until one Democratic state senator, a civil-rights champion, was absent attending the inauguration, to push through a plan to redraw the map of state districts—something that’s traditionally done only once a decade—in order to give Republicans a majority in the currently deadlocked Senate. The plan was so aggressive that even McDonnell quickly distanced himself from it, though he hasn’t said he won’t sign it.

And of course, we’re all but certain to see more of these schemes in the coming months and years. After all, for a modern Republican Party that fears it could be headed for permanent minority status, changing the rules just may be the only hope.