Republicans hit obstacles to altering electoral college

WASHINGTON — A concerted Republican effort to alter the balance of power in presidential elections by changing the rules for the electoral college is facing significant hurdles — including from some GOP officials in the affected states.

All but two states currently award electoral votes under a winner-take-all system. Plans to replace that with a proportional system are under consideration in half a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Michigan.

All were presidential battlegrounds that President Obama carried last fall. But their state governments remain under Republican control, and some GOP lawmakers are pushing changes that would make it harder for Democrats to prevail in future contests.

It is too early to say whether any of the proposals will become law this year, but the idea has attracted support on the national level. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, reelected to a new term on Friday, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently that the change was something that Republicans in blue states “ought to be looking at.”

Democrats say the proposals are merely the latest in a series of GOP efforts to rig the rules of a game they are losing. And at least some Republicans seem to agree.


In Florida, the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives expressed opposition last week to changing the way the largest swing state allots electoral votes, almost certainly dooming any chance that it will happen there.

Republicans don’t “need to change the rules of the game,” Rep. Will Weatherford told the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. “I think we need to get better.”

In Virginia, a state Senate committee advanced a plan last week to divvy up the state’s electoral votes in the future according to congressional district results. Obama carried Virginia’s popular vote by almost 4 percentage points in 2012, but Mitt Romney would have claimed nine of the state’s 13 electoral votes had the GOP plan been in effect.

On Friday, however, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and several GOP lawmakers came out against the measure, effectively killing it.

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate majority leader plans to introduce a measure that would give two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide vote and divide the remainder according to the percentage of the popular vote each candidate receives. Under that plan, Romney would have won eight of the state’s 20 electoral votes, according to Republican Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the sponsor.

Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, told the Associated Press last week that he could “go either way” on changing the method for allocating his state’s electoral votes but doesn’t plan to push the idea. A GOP lawmaker who failed in an earlier effort to change the system has said he plans to reintroduce the measure this year.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a target of intense criticism from Democrats in 2012 over voting procedures, has backed away from a postelection suggestion that his state move to a system of awarding electoral votes by congressional district. Such a plan would have given Romney 12 of the state’s 18 electoral votes; he lost Ohio by 5 percentage points and wound up with no electoral votes. Husted, a Republican, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that his comments were taken out of context and that he was neither advocating nor promoting the electoral change.

The Republican proposals, which critics are calling a power grab, are also being discussed in Wisconsin, the scene of some of the most heated partisan warfare of the last four years.

Only Nebraska and Maine allow a divided electoral vote, and it has happened only once: In 2008, Obama won a single electoral vote in Nebraska, while losing statewide, by carrying an Omaha-area district.

If a proportional distribution of electoral votes went into effect in a number of swing states, it could have far-reaching effects on the election of the next president. In theory, Romney could have won in 2012 under such a plan, though that calculation doesn’t account for campaign strategies that would have been radically different had the contest centered around the vote in individual congressional districts rather than entire states.

Ideas for altering the electoral college are the latest outgrowth of a 2010 midterm election that brought Republicans to power in swing states. Using their new influence, GOP officials proposed sweeping changes in election procedures — changes that were described as voter suppression by Democrats and some independent analysts. In several states, opponents succeeded in getting the courts to block some of the changes, including restrictions on voter registration and early voting. In the end, instead of preventing Obama’s reelection, the GOP effort produced a backlash against Republican politicians.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida has announced that he wants to expand early voting in his state, after having signed into law a measure that curbed early voting in 2012. A recent study of data compiled by the Orlando Sentinel found that long lines on election day discouraged more than 200,000 Floridians from voting in November.

“There’s this perception, among the public, that the Republicans were trying to manipulate the presidential election” in 2012, political scientist Michael McDonald of George Mason University said. He warned that if Republicans succeeded in changing the way electoral votes are awarded, it could lead to retaliation against governors and state legislators by “super PACs” and the national Democratic Party.

“This would all snowball together into a situation that I don’t think these state legislators want to find themselves in. They’re running a real risk here of losing complete control of their destinies,” McDonald said.