Clashing Mandates and the Role of Voting Structures Obama Decisive Presidential Winner, but Majority of House Represented by Republicans in Districts won by Romney

by Rob Richie // Published November 20, 2012
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Although this year’s elections were highly competitive, Democrats nationally had a clear edge among voters. Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes and more than four million popular votes, while Republicans won only eight of 33 U.S. Senate races.

But it was a different story in U.S. House elections. Democrats won only 46% of seats, with Republicans ending up with a comfortable 33-seat margin. Despite Republicans having the advantage of running far more incumbents, Democratic House candidates have won more than a half million more votes and an even larger margin in races contested by both parties. Our recent analysis suggests that for Democrats to win a majority, they likely needed 53% of actual House votes and a 55% general voter preference for Democrats (to make up for the Republicans' incumbent advantage). In other words, House Democratic candidates likely needed to win some six million more popular votes than they actually did in order to win a majority.

New data from Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report helps explain why. If this presidential election had been decided by allocating electoral votes by congressional district, Mitt Romney would have handily defeated Barack Obama.
The core reason for this seemingly surprising outcome is that, as we have pointed out since the 1990s, the Republican vote is more efficiently distributed across the country. Democratic votes in turn are more concentrated in urban areas, resulting in more “wasted” votes. Add in the additional edge secured by Republicans with gerrymandered maps in several big states, and you have a recipe for a clash of mandates. On the one hand, you have President Obama winning a definitive re-election. On the other, you have an absolute majority of U.S. House seats held by Republicans representing districts that were carried by Mitt Romney.

Wasserman’s data is regularly being updated, but  as of today shows Romney taking 213 districts (in which Republican House candidates won 207 races) and Obama 192 seats (in which Democratic candidates won 187). Presidential outcomes in the remaining 30 districts have yet to be determined, but Republican congressional candidates won 22 of them. Romney ultimately will likely carry about 230 districts and Obama only 205 – closely tracking what our Monopoly Politics 2012 report would have forecast.

I draw three conclusions from these numbers:

1)    Compromise may remain difficult for structural reasons: Congressional rules and separation of powers are designed to promote compromises among our elected leaders. But in this highly partisan climate, we’re seeing less and less of it – and this year’s winner-take-all electoral rules have divided us even more, as indicated by the fact that only 11 of the 405 districts where we know the presidential winner will be represented by a candidate of the other party.

Obama won the presidency relatively decisively, yet a majority of House Members are Republicans who represent a district where Obama in fact lost to Romney. The two sides obviously have to work out a compromise -- with the U.S. Senate in the mix as well, of course -- but have clashing electoral mandates. Obama’s mandate is grounded more in voters and the Republicans’ mandate grounded more in geography, but both sides can claim legitimacy based on the current rules.

2)    Don’t be surprised if more Republicans back allocating electoral votes by congressional district: Our current state-based winner-take-all district system is a disaster when it comes to equity and common sense, with four out of five states ignored in presidential elections and absolutely no indication of likely changes in the presidential swing states in the 2016 elections, as we have argued repeatedly. Add to it that for the third straight election, the results suggest that Democrats would have won the presidential election even if they lost the popular vote by a small margin-- another tilt in outcomes that threatens to undercut representative democracy.

It’s time to reform this system, with the best approach for 2016 being to give everyone an equal vote through more states passing the National Popular Vote plan. But don’t be surprised if you see more Republicans calling for allocating electoral votes by congressional district. Under such a system, electoral votes would be allocated based on which candidate won each of the 435 congressional districts, with two electoral votes going to the statewide vote winner. Obama this year carried three more states, meaning he would have won six more electoral votes from that pool of votes – but would have lost overall due to Romney’s much bigger edge in House districts.

Allocating electoral votes by district is rife with flaws, including the fact that it would still leave most voters ignored and would make it even more likely to elect a popular vote loser – as would have been the case this year. It's a non-starter because it creates a major skew for one party, violating the democratic principle of having a level playing field.

3) It’s time to change U.S. House elections to fair voting: These latest numbers underscore the partisan bias in U.S. House elections that I described in my recent Washington Post op-ed. While there’s great value in independent redistricting, gerrymandering is simply not the core explanation for either the rising partisanship of voters or the partisan U.S. House tilt. That core problem is that winner-take-all, single-member district elections inevitably leave most voters in one-sided districts, and the combination of Democrats living in urban areas and strongly Democratic majority-minority districts being created for fair representation inevitably results in most of the safest districts being heavily Democratic. The Republican vote as a result is more efficiently dispersed, producing an overall edge in seats that likely will continue as long as the national party division is close and as long as voters don't return to the "ticket-splitting" patterns of past years when many conservative Democrats could win in Republican-leaning districts.

Fair voting forms of proportional representation are modest, American solutions to this problem. Fully constitutional, our plans at FairVoting.US eliminate national bias while opening up all states to voter choice and fair representation.

To better understand fair voting, see the individual state plans we have drawn for congressional elections for every state at FairVoting.US. No state with at least three districts would be likely to end up with any of its voters represented by only one party. We would have shared representation of each district’s left, right and center.

In our Louisiana plan, for example, we take the state’s six seats and divide them into two districts, each with three seats. Winning a seat using a fair voting system like choice voting would take a little over a quarter over the vote. Suddenly, six ultra-safe districts for one party would be replaced with a system where every voter in every election would cast a meaningful vote – and receive a far more representative delegation than five conservative Republicans and one liberal Democrat. Similarly, our Massachusetts plan would create three districts, each with three seats, and would likely result in three Republican seats in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the House since 1994 – yet still give a clear majority to Democratic candidates who likely would reflect more diversity of opinion within the Democratic party.

We could implement fair voting by simple statute. It’s time for serious discussion of real reform to balance representation of geography with voter intent.