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Commentary: Rigging presidential elections

We’re used to some level of dirty politics in our elections, even presidential elections  -- in fact, smears, nastiness and exaggeration have been around since the time of George Washington.

But we draw the line at trying to actually rig the election results. When the verdict is in, it’s in, and everybody accepts the result.

Except now certain Republicans around the country have a plan to rig presidential election results to virtually guarantee that any Republican would win the presidency, even if they really lost.

Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus has endorsed this plan, members of his party are actively pushing it in Pennsylvania, and Governor Snyder says it is worth thinking about in Michigan.  The truth is that it is not only unfair, but has the potential, if adopted, to make Michigan less relevant in presidential elections.

Here’s what they want to do: Currently, the Electoral College works like this. The presidential candidate who wins a state gets all that state’s electoral votes. This is true in every state except Maine and Nebraska, and has almost always been true there too.

Every state has a number of electoral votes equivalent to the number of congressmen and senators it has. After everyone has voted, they add the numbers up and the winner wins.

Usually, the margin is very decisive. Last fall, for example, the vote was 332 for President Obama and 206 for Mitt Romney. The Obama totals include all 16 of Michigan’s votes.

But what if instead of having a winner-take-all system, Michigan split its electoral vote by congressional district, with the overall statewide winner getting the two bonus votes? That would have meant Romney would have won Michigan, nine votes to seven, even though Obama won the state’s popular vote easily, by almost half a million votes.

If this system had been put in place nationwide, Mr. Romney would have won the election last fall, despite losing the nationwide popular count by almost five million votes. That’s because Romney won more congressional districts, thanks to gerrymandering and legislative redistricting.

That’s why the GOP has a solid majority in the U.S. House, even though more than a million more votes were cast for Democrats nationwide. Roughly, they created a lot of districts where Republicans get around 55 percent of the votes, and a smaller number where as many as 80 percent of the voters are Democrats. Since 1888, the current Electoral College system has given us a president who won the popular vote every time, except once.

Switching to a congressional district system would mean the candidate people didn’t want would usually become president. That could completely undermine confidence in our political system. Plus, it would make Michigan more irrelevant nationally. President George W. Bush campaigned a lot in Michigan because he thought he had a chance to carry the state.

Neither side would pay us much attention if the most any campaign could sway would be one or two electoral votes.

Making a change like this would be the final triumph of cynicism over democracy. This bad idea should be abandoned, right away.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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