Virginia’s Gerrymandering Violates the Golden Rule in Politics

One of the chief benefits of a written Constitution meant to last for centuries is that it forces drafters to think beyond their own narrow self-interest. It is analogous to agreeing on the rules to a game before you start; only, when you die, your children have to play by the same rules, and their children after them. While you may know something about your own skills and resources, you cannot know for sure whether your grandchildren will have the same characteristics. Most decent people will seek rules that provide general security, fair treatment, and broad opportunity.

That’s why it’s completely asinine for Virginia Republicans to try to change the way the state’s Electoral College votes (EVs) are allocated.

Gerrymandering is the process by which electoral districts are drawn to favor the party doing the drawing. Gerrymandering was named after Elbridge Gerry, one of James Madison’s vice presidents (which should tell you how long the practice has been with us). Today’s Virginia Republicans are frustrated that one party takes all of its EVs when millions of its citizens vote for the other candidate. They are trying to allocate EVs according to the vote in each Congressional district (or another equally gerrymandered map).

There’s nothing inherently wicked about such a scheme. The problem is in changing the rule to suit your own immediate advantage. In Virginia’s case, this is especially risky. The federal capital is growing at monstrous rates, drawing leftists and other government enthusiasts in droves to Northern Virginia. It’s entirely possible that Virginia will be solid blue in the next decade. If and when Democrats draw new maps after the 2020 census, will Republicans still be glad for their clever little innovation?

The opposite solution is just as bad. Indignant after Bush won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote (spare me the election-stealing pouting), many states have pinky-sworn to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Getting rid of the Electoral College could result in more extremist candidates; after all, the Republican could simply harvest millions of votes from Texas and Alabama without a care for the comparatively puny population of Connecticut.

The thing is, the Constitution carries the rules. We all started playing the game with the Electoral College system in place. It isn’t right for some players to get together now and try to play by different rules. This intuition is why the Articles of Confederation required unanimous approval for any changes, and that, in turn, is one reason why the Constitutional Convention ignored them. If it’s time to reconsider the rules of the game, then all of the players at least get a say in how it’s going to work.

We begin to see the application of the golden rule in politics. “Do unto others” includes imposing rules on others that you would have them impose on you. And before you finish that thought, it doesn’t matter if the other side is willing to change the rules mid-street. Jesus didn’t offer a “only when it’s convenient” clause. (For what it’s worth, Democrats pulled a similar stunt in Massachusetts. When a Democrat was governor, they gave the governor the power to appoint replacements to the Senate. When a certain Republican was governor, they changed the process to a special election. Some even tried to change it back when Ted Kennedy died and Deval Patrick was governor, but even deep blue Massachusetts saw that as foul play.)

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    This idea is gaining steam in Michigan as well. Basically an ethical Republican governor is the only thing standing between the Republican Congress and this silly and unfair approach to electoral votes.

    The really ridiculous thing is that it’s easy to solve… distribute electoral votes on a percentage basis (encouraging tournout), and then let the two sides haggle over how to work out how to reward the winner. As for me, I say two electoral votes for winning (In Michigan, obviously it would be different in other states) and the rest distributed proportionally. That attaches value to winning but also encourages turnout for the minority party. It could also make Presidential races far less bottlenecked, because they would have to pay attention to locations all over the country rather than zeroing in on three or four battleground states.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    I actually prefer the electoral college basically as it was originally. Barring that, I think the winner take all has some useful side effects.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Like what? It bothers me that Republicans in California or Democrats in Texas vastly outnumber the entire populations of small states, but those small states get more voting power. Large parts of the country are ignored because the voting trends there are set. But if electoral votes were distributed proportionally, (NOT by gerrymandered districts, as you point out), candidates would have a far greater variety of strategies worth employing in the race to 270.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    For one example, George W. Bush did not really have to campaign in Texas. If the Democrats could pick up 10 or 15 votes in the bluer counties, Republicans would feel more pressure to put up a Rick Perry type (his own lack of success in Texas notwithstanding). Likewise with California – the Dems might put up some popular liberal Californian like Feinstein in hopes of mining the millions of votes there.

    Your proposal wasn’t as bad as the national popular vote idea, but I think we need to be cautious about rendering the map more finely.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    I’m not quite sure what you’re saying… why is it a good thing that candidates can afford to ignore huge populations of people? And why would Republicans put up more of a Rick Perry type to get more votes in Texas when it would hurt them everywhere else?

    The electoral college purpose is essentially to ensure the people don’t elect a maniac. We never have, and I feel like we can trust them at this point. There is structural value to the electoral college, but it doesn’t seem right to me that under the current system 51% of voters in North Dakota would have more influence on the outcome of the election than 49% of the voters in the state of California.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Because the parties could focus more on states where they can glean widespread popular support. As it stands, if Romney had gotten 8 million more votes in Texas, he would not have fared any better. Republicans might decide to put up a candidate that has broad appeal in the South, for instance, in an attempt to harvest a 60%+ victory there.

    The President is supposed to be a national figure and I think the system works well when it pressures the candidates to adapt nationally palatable personalities. I understand your consternation about all the focus on Ohio and Florida while the rest of us cast what feels like a meaningless vote. Another way to look at it, though, is that California and Texas set the lines on the field while the other states play. The very fact of red Texas and blue California changes the game.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Well, I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I don’t think a system that brings the electoral college closer to a direct vote would encourage extremism… quite the contrary. And your premise is that it is uncharitable for a party to use gerrymandering for political advantage… but isn’t it just as unethical for a party in the majority to be unwilling to change the rules because they ALREADY have the political advantage, and they are able to capitalize? Is it really fair that California has such an outsized impact on the election? Just think, if Republicans had somehow managed to gain a 50.5% majority in California, and had gotten .7% more of the vote in Floriday, Romney would have WON the electoral college by a significant majority (291-248) while LOSING the popular vote by an incredible 60-40. Of course everyone is happy that the system worked this time, but again it seems unhelpful that there can be such incredible disparity between the will of the people as displayed by voting and the will of the people after being strained through the antiquated filter of an electoral college that has really never been a needed component (as far as its purpose is concerned) of presidential races.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    My basic point was, as you say, that changing the rules mid-game for your own advantage is fundamentally unethical. This conversation is a different one about the propriety of different ways of selecting a federal executive. I suppose the question of how a national popular vote would change partisan behavior is an empirical one. My suspicion is that we would see more polarized candidates and more regionalized politics. But that may well be untrue.

    As an aside, I don’t follow your electoral math. Romney lost 51-47. How does him getting more votes in California and Florida mean he loses the popular vote by more?

    I don’t have the same enthusiasm for democracy as many people. When I say the electoral college as originally designed, I mean that I am fine with state legislatures picking electors who then vote for president. I don’t expect a lot of company on that score. I also wouldn’t say that I am “happy that the system worked this time” – my interpretation of the election is a dark omen indeed, striking me with a deep pessimism about our ability to be one of them nation thingies.

  • Ben

    I apologize, you’re right on the math part, I was typing too fast while working off another page and typed in the wrong thing. The point remains, though, that Romney could could have lost the popular vote 51-47 and yet won 291-248.

    An even better example might be Nixon’s election. Had he received just one percentage point less of the popular vote, he would have lost, 43-42, while winning the electoral college 301-191.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Oh, no doubt a person could win bare majorities in just enough EV states and lose by double digits everywhere else. It’s kinda curious that hasn’t happened more often, actually… well, not that exactly, but the whole popular vote/EV diversion.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    What is this, a Civil Discourse column? Get out of my HEAD BEN BARTLETT!!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Welcome to Rich’s world. I imagine your empathy is growing by leaps and bounds!


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