Will the GOP Vote-Rigging Effort Invite a Backlash?

Over the last 12 years (since the Florida debacle of 2000), I've argued repeatedly that politics in America is characterized by an Audacity Gap. It may not hold in every situation and every controversy, but most of the time, Republicans are willing take actions both small (shouting at the president that he's a liar during the State of the Union) and large (filibustering everything or holding the economy hostage over the debt ceiling) that Democrats are far too timid to even consider. Often it occurs when Republicans decide to violate a norm of how business had been done previously, safe in the knowledge that since what's at issue is a norm and not a rule, there's really nothing to stop them. As I put it some time ago, Republicans are the party of "Yes we can," while Democrats are the party of "Maybe we shouldn't." It doesn't always work to Republicans' advantage, but much of the time it does.

When it works, it's often because the public doesn't know, doesn't understand, or doesn't care. This is probably the case with the dramatic increase in filibusters over the last four years. Republicans surely understood that there was a risk that they'd look like obstructionists and be punished at the polls, but they saw that risk as minimal compared to the benefits to be gained by thwarting Barack Obama's agenda. The 2010 election seemed to prove them right. And now, they're hoping they can rig the entire presidential-election process.

But let's back up a bit. Over the last few years, Republicans decided that it would be good if instead of their usual electoral tactics of vote suppression, like sending fliers into black neighborhoods telling people the election had been moved to Wednesday (yes, they've done that more than once), they'd actually pass a raft of state laws making it more difficult for the wrong kind of people—minorities, urban dwellers, students—to cast ballots. The problem was that as election day approached and these laws got more and more attention, there was a backlash. Democrats put extra effort into voter education and field organizing in order to make sure those laws didn't produce their desired effect. You might remember the notorious case of Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, who said proudly, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done." Pennsylvania Democrats made sure it wasn't going to happen, and Obama won the state by five and a half points. That isn't to say that voter suppression laws didn't have an impact, but that impact was certainly mitigated substantially by the backlash.

So now Republicans are trying a new way to rig the presidential vote, by changing the way electoral votes are counted, but only in a few states. By switching from a winner-take-all system to one in which electoral votes are allotted separately for each congressional district, they can squeeze out a few more red votes in blue states. Of course, they don't want to do this in Texas or Georgia, but only in states that have gone Democratic in recent presidential campaigns, but where they control the legislature (Virginia is leading the way). So the question is, could there be a backlash that would undermine the effectiveness of this tactic?

If Democrats want to engineer such a backlash, they only have a few options. The first would be just to raise a stink and get the legislatures where Republicans are considering this—Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida—to back down as they see a political cost to be paid for their cynical attempt to rig the next election. That's possible, but it won't be easy. The second option would be for Democrats to go tit-for-tat. Unfortunately, they can't. Those six states, blue on the presidential level but with Republican legislatures, account for 106 electoral votes. But there's only one state that has become reliably Republican in its presidential vote, yet has a Democratic legislature: West Virginia. And the Democrats there are probably happier if a Republican wins the presidency anyway.

That leaves just one option: the National Popular Vote. The way it works is that states pledge that they will award their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote (remember that according to the Constitution, states can use any method they like to allot their electoral votes; if a state wanted, it would be legal to do it by coin flip, a Puppy Bowl, or just giving the votes to the Natural Law Party candidate every time). NPV measures have already been passed in eight states plus D.C., with the proviso that it only goes into effect once states with a total of 270 electoral votes sign on. Most Americans have never heard of NPV, but Kevin Drum suggests, the Republican vote-rigging effort could provide just the shot in the arm NPV needs to become a national movement.

The chances of a backlash to the Republican effort succeeding, whether in the form of sufficient public pressure to cause Republicans to retreat, or in the form of a renewed NPV push, are directly proportional to the amount of attention the Republican effort receives. The more it looks like the vote-rigging scheme could affect the outcome of the presidential race in 2016 or beyond, the greater urgency Democrats around the country will feel to do something about it.

As a first step though, the NPV has to redesign its god-awful web site. It would have been hideous in 1995, which was apparently when the template they downloaded was created, and it looks like it hasn't been updated since 2011. I'm sure some liberal donor could step up and give them the money to do it, or maybe even take over what sure looks like an organization that may or may not actually still exist. If they're going to build a movement, they ought to get their act together.

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