What Goes Around Comes Around?

A little Electoral College history in Michigan


Since President Obama’s reelection victory in 2012, a number of Republican state legislators around the country have proposed altering the electoral vote allocation processes in their respective states. Legislative activity on this front has been most common in competitive states that Obama won but where Republicans control most or all of state government, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Despite some claims to the contrary, a key motivation has surely been to help Republicans win electoral votes in states that have been giving 100% of their share to Democrats.

The latest entry to the Electoral College change-a-thon is Michigan, where state Rep. Pete Lund (R) has introduced House Bill 5974 to alter the state’s allocation process. A Republican presidential nominee last won the Wolverine State in 1988, meaning Democrats have claimed all of its electoral votes in six straight presidential elections. Another state where this is the case is Pennsylvania, and early in 2013 the Crystal Ball performed an in-depth analysis of a proportional plan then under consideration in the Keystone State. We would do the same for Michigan, but Crystal Ball friend Josh Putnam of Appalachian State University and the invaluable Frontloading HQ blog beat us to the punch.

Still, it’s important to note that Michigan has prior history with partisan gamesmanship over the state’s electoral votes. In fact, Democrats were once the partisans toying with the Wolverine State’s allocation rules, and they actually succeeded in changing the process. So if Michigan ends up altering its system (unlikely), it might just be a case of “what goes around comes around.”

The late 19th century was a time of great partisanship and political polarization, somewhat similar to today. It was a period that saw large swings toward one major party or the other, also something we’ve seen in recent times. In the 1888 presidential election, Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland. But Harrison and Republicans’ joys were short-lived. Economic struggles, debate over a protectionist tariff, wasteful spending (Democrats decried the “Billion Dollar Congress”), and general Republican overreach (the party controlled the White House, Senate, and House) proceeded to lead to a massive Democratic wave in 1890 that saw Republicans lose more than 80 seats in the House. The wave also spilled onto other shores, aiding Democrats in state and legislative races around the country, including in Michigan.

Edwin Winans, the newly-elected Democratic governor, and the new Democratic-controlled legislature in the Wolverine State were clearly tired of Republicans dominating the state in presidential elections. While Democrats have won the state six straight times in recent presidential elections, Republicans had an incredible run in Michigan. Before 1932 and the New Deal, the GOP won at least a plurality in every presidential election in Michigan from 1856 to 1928, save the three-way 1912 contest (when Republican-turned-Progressive Theodore Roosevelt won the state). So Democrats set to the task of changing the rules of the game.

The Democrats’ “Plan to Steal Presidential Electors” (to quote a column title in the Republican-supporting Chicago Daily Tribune from Jan. 30, 1891) was introduced early on in the 1891 legislative session. The proposal would change Michigan from a winner-take-all state in the Electoral College to one based on the result in each of its 12 congressional districts, which, conveniently for Democrats, were redrawn at this time as well. Thus, the majority party could gerrymander the districts to maximize not only its membership in the House but also its potential take in the Electoral College.

The plan also called for Michigan’s two other electoral votes, representing its senators, to be decided in two larger east and west districts, essentially leaving the state with 14 districts deciding the state’s 14 electoral votes. Based on the 1884 and 1888 presidential elections, this meant Democrats might have a shot at winning a majority of the state’s electoral votes even though the party seemed likely to lose the plurality once again. (This is different from the two states that currently apportion electoral votes by congressional district, Maine and Nebraska. In those states, the overall statewide winner gets the state’s two electoral votes that account for the state’s two senators, and then the other electoral votes are given to the winner of the state’s individual U.S. House districts.)

Amid controversy, the bill became law in the summer of 1891.

Naturally, Republicans weren’t going to take this lying down. They challenged the district law in the court system, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual decision in McPherson v. Blacker. Democrats prevailed as the court’s ruling upheld the Michigan legislature’s right to alter its electoral vote allocation method.

That decision is one reason why states can continue pondering such changes today.

However, after all the hubbub, Michigan’s district law didn’t really impact the outcome of the 1892 presidential election. Although the final popular vote margin was only three percentage points (46%-43%), Cleveland bested Harrison in a rematch and won the Electoral College quite convincingly, 277 to 145 (Populist James Weaver won 22 electoral votes).

Perhaps as a warning to today’s electoral vote tinkerers, things didn’t work out for Michigan Democrats the way they planned. Reports after the district law’s passage indicated Democrats might be able to win eight or nine of Michigan’s 14 electoral votes, but in the end Democrats only won five. They also lost the governorship: Gov. Winans stepped aside at the Michigan Democratic convention, and Republican John Rich narrowly defeated Democrat Allen Morse in November (at the time, Michigan only had two-year gubernatorial terms). Despite the Democratic gerrymander, Republicans won seven of the state’s 12 congressional races (the GOP may have won an eighth, but the Democrat was seated in the next Congress and withstood a challenge to the result). Lastly, Republicans also recaptured both chambers in the state legislature. Back in full control of state government, the GOP immediately repealed the district electoral vote system, returning to a winner-take-all method before the 1896 election.

Although this is fun history, electoral vote shenanigans are a dangerous game. Any alterations to Electoral College rules by Republican-led states that lean Democratic in presidential years may well lead to eventual retaliation by Democratic-led states (now or in the future) in states that tend to vote Republican at the presidential level. Barring an extremely close election (like 2000), any president who lacks a popular vote plurality will likely be hobbled from Day One. Moreover, to actually change the rules would suggest that the party’s members really think they can only win the White House by rigging the game.

Just because states can change the way they allocate electoral votes doesn’t mean they should. Maine and Nebraska, the two small states that dole out their electoral votes differently, would do the nation a great service by getting in line with the other states and going to winner-take-all systems.