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Yes, Virginia, winner-take-all isn't all it's cracked up to be

January 30, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Virginia state Sen. Charles W. Carrico, author of legislation to reallocate the state's electoral votes.
Virginia state Sen. Charles W. Carrico, author of legislation to reallocate… (Bob Brown / Associated Press )

Republicans in the Virginia Legislature have failed in their audacious attempt to change the allocation of the state’s 13 electoral votes from winner-take-all to a system in which the votes would be based on the outcome in congressional districts. Had the change been in effect in November, President Obama, who won 51.1% of the popular vote in Virginia, would have received only four electoral votes while Mitt Romney would have been awarded nine. That fuzzy math would have been made possible by the magic of gerrymandering.

The idea created a national uproar, and even Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, repudiated it. On Tuesday, a state Senate committee deep-sixed the idea, refusing to approve either the original congressional district allocation or a last-minute substitute that would have apportioned the state’s electoral votes based on the popular vote.  

The original plan offends most Americans’ sense of fairness, but the Republicans’ fallback plan is harder to dismiss. Why shouldn’t the state’s electoral vote tally take account of ballots cast by the Romney-supporting minority? In 2012, the winner-take-all system disenfranchised Republican voters in Virginia the same way it nullified the votes of millions of Democrats in the red state of Texas. If every state went to a proportional system, we would be closer to the ideal of electing the president by popular vote (closer, but not all the way there, because each state has two electoral votes unrelated to population).

One argument that can be raised against the idea of proportional allocation of electoral votes is that it would be unfair if some states adopted it while others retained the winner-take-all system. But unfair to whom? Maybe the presidential candidate whose party didn’t control a sufficient number of state legislatures. But from the standpoint of the individual voter, the proportional system may seem fairer than winner-take-all.

In any event, two states -- Nebraska and Maine -- already depart from the pure winner-take-all model, awarding some of their electoral votes by congressional district and some to the statewide winner.

The Constitution gives states wide latitude to decide how to choose electors. Taking advantage of that authority, California and eight other states have agreed to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but only at such time as states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes (the winning margin) make the same pledge. We’re a long way from that day, but if it ever arrived, a state could end up supporting a presidential candidate that a majority of its own voters opposed.

That’s arguably as bizarre a result as what would have happened in Virginia in 2012 if electoral votes had been apportioned by congressional district.

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