Officials in Virginia and Ohio, once reliably red states that went for President Obama in the past two elections, have discussed the idea of apportioning their Electoral College votes by congressional district — a system some say would more accurately reflect the will of the states’ voters but one that others dismiss as an unnecessary political ploy.
The talks come as demographic shifts have pushed the GOP’s reliable bastions to more exurban and rural areas, allowing Democrats to win such states by sufficiently running up their margins in a comparatively small number of densely populated cities and counties.
To that end, Virginia state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr., Grayson Republican, has introduced a bill that would award one electoral vote to the winner of each of the state’s 11 congressional districts, and the state’s two at-large votes to the candidate who wins the majority of the districts.
“People in my district — they feel discouraged by coming out because their votes don’t mean anything if they’re outvoted in metropolitan districts,” Mr. Carrico said. “It can go either way — it doesn’t necessarily mean that one political party is going to be favored over another. When they come out to vote, they know their vote counts instead of a winner take all. I’d love to see other states do this because I don’t feel the Electoral College right now is a fair system.”
To Mr. Carrico’s point, Mr. Obama won a slightly higher percentage of Virginia’s vote in 2008 than President George W. Bush did in 2000 — 52.62 percent to 52.47 percent — but won just 48 of the state’s 134 localities, compared with Mr. Bush’s 104. He won even fewer this year — 46 — but still carried the state with 51 percent of the vote.
Under Mr. Carrico’s proposal, Mitt Romney would have won nine electoral votes to Mr. Obama’s four, as Democrats are largely clustered in the state’s population hubs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 had been the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia before Mr. Obama broke through in 2008.
Forty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia, use winner-take-all systems to distribute their electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, each district gets one vote and the statewide winner receives two at-large votes. In 2008, Mr. Obama actually benefited from the quirk, picking up an extra vote by winning Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District by 3,000 votes — marking the only time in history that either of the two states have not awarded all their votes to one candidate.
Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax Democrat, introduced a bill during the 2012 General Assembly session that would have aligned Virginia’s rules with the ones Nebraska and Maine use, but it died in a subcommittee. Mr. Romney still would have won a majority of the state’s electoral votes — seven to Mr. Obama’s six — under those rules.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, where Republican presidential candidates have carried the state in 10 of the 14 elections between 1952 and 2004, liberal blogs jumped all over Secretary of State Jon Husted when, after this year’s election, he mentioned the idea of switching the winner-take-all state to allocation by district.
But he said it’s not an idea he is pushing — he was merely responding to a question about how to make Ohio elections less partisan.
“So I said ‘look, it really doesn’t matter what structure you have. As long as you have a winner-take-all system, you’re going to have controversy in swing states,’” he told The Washington Times. “If you don’t want election controversy in Ohio, you could fix the congressional districts, make them fair, and then you could apportion electoral votes by congressional districts.”
“If you don’t want controversy, don’t be a swing state,” he continued. “And that would be a way to not be a swing state. But it’s not something I am advocating for.”
Such discussions are not unique to states that can now be labeled reliably purple. Pennsylvania has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, and last year, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester, unsuccessfully pushed to switch from the traditional winner-take-all system for electoral voters to the format that would award votes based on the winner of each of the state’s 18 individual congressional districts. The winner of the statewide vote would receive two electoral votes.
The sparsely populated middle of the state frequently loses out in presidential elections to Philadelphia, with its powerful Democratic machine and get-out-the-vote efforts, and the city’s moderate suburbs. Democratic candidates routinely win Philadelphia’s wards by a margin of 9 to 1, attracting enough votes in the area to carry the state overall. Unofficial returns this year showed the astonishing result that Mr. Romney won zero votes in 59 of the city’s divisions.
But as Mr. Husted indicated, if votes are allocated by district, states like Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania would essentially become irrelevant for presidential campaigns. In Pennsylvania, the candidates would essentially be competing for the two at-large votes and any congressional districts not made solidly red or blue during the 2010 redistricting process.
“Our districts are hyper-gerrymandered — do you want to tie your electoral votes to that debacle?” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. “A place like Ohio and Virginia — if you went to this plan, they’re out of the equation. You are, in essence, coming out with preordained outcomes.”
Josh Shapiro, a Democratic former state representative from the Philadelphia suburbs who is now chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, called the idea a blatantly political move.
“When they can’t win on issues and ideas, they try to change the rules to give themselves a fighting chance,” he said of the GOP. “It would be a better use of time for Republicans to focus on moderating their policies as opposed to trying to change the rules.”
But Mr. Pileggi has said the issue is one of basic fairness, and that the goal is to more closely conform the state’s Electoral College delegation to the will of the voters. He has indicated to colleagues that he plans to introduce a slightly different bill this year that would give two Electoral College votes to the statewide popular vote winner, then award the remaining ones proportionally. That would have resulted in Mr. Obama winning 12 electoral votes to Mr. Romney’s eight this year. Mr. Obama’s five-point margin of victory instead gave him all 20 of the state’s votes.
“This advantage of this system is clear: It much more accurately reflects the will of the voters in our state,” Mr. Pileggi wrote to his Senate colleagues.