Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 27, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: GOP trying to alter the electoral landscape


---- — Twelve years ago, the nation was bitterly divided over a presidential election that in the end was decided by what many called an outrageously partisan U.S. Supreme Court.

While the outcome in Florida that year is still hotly disputed, what many citizens — not just Democrats — found especially upsetting was that the eventual winner, George W. Bush, actually lost the popular vote to Al Gore by more than half a million votes.

That led to many saying it was time to abolish the electoral college.

But if you thought the 2000 election controversial, the chair of the Republican National Committee is pushing a plan that — had it been in effect last year — would have installed Mitt Romney in the White House, even though he lost the election by 5 million votes.

They are dead serious about this.

Republicans in a number of states that usually vote "blue" or Democratic for President, are introducing bills to change the way those states award their electoral votes.

Currently, nearly every state awards its electors on a winner-take-all basis.

The only exceptions are tiny Maine and Nebraska, where any candidate who wins a congressional district wins one electoral vote from it.

But there's been only a single occasion either one split their votes: President Obama won a single Nebraska elector the first time he ran.

But Republicans are now talking about drastically altering the electoral landscape.

They want to change laws in a number of states to divide electoral votes by congressional district, with the two remaining votes going to the winner of that state's popular vote.

That might make some sense — if redistricting were done by neutral computers or commissions.

But in most states, including Michigan and Ohio, Republicans controlled the show when the new lines were drawn two years ago.

In Michigan, for example, they drew nine districts designed to vote Republican to only five which strongly lean Democratic.

That was true throughout most of the country. Republican legislators dense-packed Democratic voters into as few districts as possible, so they could create more districts with modest GOP majorities.

In Michigan, for example, Romney had majorities in nine congressional districts; Obama won only five.

Statewide, however, Mr. Obama won by nearly 450,000 votes. Yet had electoral votes been distributed according to the new GOP plan, Romney would have "won" Michigan by nine votes to seven.

Nationwide, Romney would also have been elected president, if electoral votes were divided by district.

That's because despite decisively losing the popular vote, he won 228 congressional districts, to 207 for President Obama.

The President won both more popular votes and more states than the challenger. But popular votes are legally meaningless, and the 24 states Romney won would have given him victory with 276 electoral votes.

This may sound like science fiction, but Republicans seem determined to try it. Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania to switch to awarding electoral votes by district, a plan supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. Similar bills are being discussed in Virginia and Wisconsin, and possibly other states.

And on Dec. 16, as Michigan's electors met in Lansing to cast their ballots for Mr. Obama, State Rep. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Township, announced he would introduce legislation to begin dividing the state's electoral votes by district.

"It's more representative of the people," Mr. Lund said, claiming "this is a better, more accurate way." Gov. Rick Snyder last week cautiously said he "could go either way" on the proposal, and called for a "thoughtful discussion."

But Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, (D-East Lansing) shot back that when it came to Republicans, "when they don't like the outcome, they try to change the rules. It's just one more effort to try and undo the will of the people."

Whether this goes anywhere in the Legislature isn't clear.

Even if dividing electors by district made sense, it is hard to see voters accepting a president who, like Mitt Romney, lost decisively, and whose opponent got an absolute majority of the popular vote.


Speaking of odd ideas "¦ Thirteen Republicans in the Michigan State Senate apparently didn't get the memo that when federal and state law conflict, federal law always wins.

That's been a settled issue since the Civil War. But last week, State Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-Shelby Township, and a dozen of his GOP colleagues introduced a bill that would outlaw any federal regulation of any firearms and ammunition manufactured in Michigan.

One might have thought they would have learned in high school civics that you can't do that. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent them a cautionary letter warning that no matter what any legislature might pass, any provision of any federal gun control act is still the law of the land.

But Pavlov, who isn't a lawyer or a college graduate, said they were doing so because "we are under a constant threat by the federal government to infringe on our Second Amendment rights." Perhaps he missed the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, not a group of local state senators, is charged with deciding what does or doesn't infringe on someone's Constitutional Rights.

Or possibly he and his colleagues are trying to please (or pander to) extreme firearms supporters, perhaps even to get some campaign contributions from them. They may not remember that their party's greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln, had definite views about the idea that states could decide to ignore the authority of federal law.

He felt that was treason, and waged a pretty significant conflict called the Civil War to show them the error of their ways.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.