Monday, January 28, 2013

Is it really that 'tricky' to rig the electoral college in advance?

Let me open by saying that I agree with about 99.9% of what Jon Bernstein has to say in his most recent take down of the rash of discussions surrounding the various proposals in Republican-controlled blue states to reallocate electoral votes. FHQ, furthermore, agrees that most of this is likely to go nowhere. [But if I had to handicap it, there's a greater chance that something passes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than in Florida, Ohio or Virginia. It's all about the Spectrum.]

However, I kind of part ways with Jon in his final paragraph where he discussed state legislators attempting to game things out in advance of any given presidential election cycle:
"But the point here is that even if state Republicans were perfectly willing to ignore their own incentives and instead do whatever the national party believed was best, it still would be extremely difficult to game out the proper combination of states in advance. If they could do the entire nation, then it would be easy. But since that can't be done, what remains just isn't very promising."
There are two parts to this: 1) Gaming the order of states ahead of time and 2) gaming the resulting allocation plans accordingly.

Jon is addressing the first, but I don't see either of those as that difficult. Based on our Electoral College Spectrum alone, one can come to a reasonable conclusion on the basic ordering of states. There is variation over time, but that is accounted for in my ECS-based handicapping of the six states above. Again, these plans make more sense now in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than they do in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The latter group is seemingly more attainable for a Republican candidate. of now.

Regardless, I don't think we are all that far removed from a simple added level of complexity in all of this that would add some oomph to the Republican efforts underway in some state legislatures. And this speaks to the second point on gaming the current system. I can't help but think back to the Republican presidential primary season a year ago. Layered into the state party rules for delegate allocation in several states were a set of conditional rules. If a candidate won 50% of the statewide vote, for instance, winner-take-all rules would be triggered either on the total allotment of delegates (i.e.: Alabama -- but the allocation was split across at-large and congressional district delegates) or in some cases just the at-large delegates (i.e.: Ohio).

My point is that these plans are not all that far removed from better gaming future conditions while also accounting for the uncertainty associated with elections from cycle to cycle. But as I said, we have yet to see any plan proposing the conditional winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes. And as many have pointed out, there is little to stop state legislatures (or state governments) from allocating electoral votes based on just about any set of parameters.

What does exist are the conflicts I mentioned back in December between state, state legislature and state party incentives versus national party incentives to change the rules (Jon has also mentioned this several times in the intervening period.). Additionally, there seems to be something of a line of demarcation between being nakedly partisan (as the current plans seem to be) and being NAKEDLY PARTISAN (as conditional plans might be construed or say simply allocating all of the electoral votes to the Republican candidate no matter the outcome).

Take Pennsylvania. Let's assume that the Republican-controlled state government passed a plan that made the allocation of electoral votes dependent upon the winner receiving a certain percentage of the vote. If we look at the period of time in which Democrats have dominated the state in the electoral college (1992-2012), we could set that threshold at 50.37% of the vote (the average of the winning candidates' shares of the vote in Pennsylvania over that time). If the winner received anything north of that, they receive all of the electoral votes.

Of course, the two Clinton elections drove that average down because of Perot's candidacy. If we subtract those two elections from the equation, we get an average winning candidate vote percentage of 51.99%. By extension, if the winning candidate wins over 52% of the vote, then, that candidate wins all of the electoral votes. If not, then the allocation is dealt with in a fashion determined by the legislature. Let's assume the allocation is based on congressional districts in that case.

The obvious rebuttal to this is, "Well that's (52%) a pretty high bar that only seemingly helps the Democratic candidate take all of the electoral votes in some extreme cases (2008) and never seemingly affords that opportunity to the Republican candidate. How does this make the Republican Party better off?" Barring an unlikely fundamental shift in just Pennsylvania, it doesn't. However, that doesn't prevent Pennsylvania Republicans from gambling a little bit and setting that threshold for the conditional winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes a little lower. At the very least this opens the door to potentially winning all of the electoral votes in the future given a more likely national shift toward Republicans that makes Pennsylvania more attainable.

Again, I agree with Jon (I don't think much of this is going anywhere because of the complexities of interests involved.), but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Republicans could add a rather simple conditional step to these proposals to better game the electoral college system. The only question is whether it is palatable to continually institute these types of plans in more states when permanent changes to the ordering (states going on/coming off the list) do arise.

...or when Democrats follow suit when the tables potentially begin to turn in terms of partisan control of state legislatures in red presidential states.

Neither of these two flavors of gaming the system strikes me as all that difficult to pull off. The hard part is maintaining all of this over time in a way that is permanently advantageous when changes inevitably occur. It would be like treating the electoral college like the quadrennial commissions that tweak the Democratic Party delegate selection rules. No one really has a stomach for constant changes to the electoral college system like that, but that is likely the Pandora's box any of these changes would open if passed and implemented.

Is it really that 'tricky' to rig the electoral college in advance?

In the short term, probably not. A party may not tip the balance enough to affect the outcome but it can rig things to be more advantageous to itself in the hopes of winning the electoral college.  In the long term, however, it becomes very difficult to maintain. "Is either worth it?" may be the better question. FHQ still doesn't think so, and my guess is that most state legislatures ultimately fall into that category as well.

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