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Published: Friday, 1/25/2013

Mich. GOP mulls electoral change; senators need civics lesson

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

LANSING — Twelve years ago, the nation was bitterly divided over a presidential election that was decided by what many critics called an outrageously partisan U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the outcome in Florida in 2000 is still hotly disputed, what many citizens — not just Democrats — found especially upsetting was that the eventual winner, George W. Bush, lost the popular vote to Al Gore by more than a half-million votes. That led many people to conclude it was time to abolish the Electoral College.

But even though the 2000 election was controversial, the chairman of the Republican National Committee is pushing a plan that — had it been in effect last year — would have installed Mitt Romney in the White House, even though he lost the election by 5 million votes.

The GOP is dead serious about this. Republicans in a number of states that usually vote Democratic for president are introducing bills that would change the way those states award their electoral votes.

Currently, nearly every state awards its electors on a winner-take-all basis. The only exceptions are tiny Maine and Nebraska, where any candidate who wins a congressional district wins one electoral vote from it. But there’s been only a single occasion when either state split its votes: President Obama won a single Nebraska elector the first time he ran, in 2008.

Republicans are talking about drastically altering the electoral landscape. They want to change laws in a number of states to divide electoral votes by congressional district, with the two remaining votes going to the winner of a state’s popular vote.

That might make some sense, if redistricting were done by neutral computers or commissions. But in most states, including Michigan and Ohio, Republicans controlled the show when the new lines were drawn.

In Michigan, for example, the GOP drew nine U.S. House districts designed to favor Republicans to only five that strongly lean Democratic.

That was true throughout most of the country. Republican lawmakers packed Democratic voters into as few districts as possible, so they could create more districts with modest GOP majorities.

In Michigan, GOP presidential nominee Romney had majorities in nine congressional districts; President Obama won five.

Statewide, Mr. Obama won by nearly 450,000 votes. Yet had electoral votes been distributed according to the new GOP plan, Mr. Romney would have “won” Michigan by nine electoral votes to seven.

Nationwide, Mr. Romney would have been elected president if electoral votes were divided by district. Despite decisively losing the popular vote, he won 228 congressional districts, to 207 for President Obama.

The President won more popular votes and more states than the challenger. But popular votes are legally meaningless, and the 24 states Mr. Romney won would have given him an Electoral College victory with 276 electoral votes.

This may sound like science fiction, but Republicans seem determined to try it. Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania that would award electoral votes by district, a plan supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. Similar bills are discussed in Virginia and Wisconsin, and possibly other states.

Last month, as Michigan’s electors met in Lansing to cast their ballots for Mr. Obama, Republican state Rep. Peter Lund said he would introduce legislation that would begin dividing the state’s electoral votes by district.

“It’s more representative of the people,” Mr. Lund said, claiming “this is a better, more accurate way.”

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last week cautiously said he “could go either way” on the proposal, and called for a “thoughtful discussion.”

But Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer shot back that when Republicans “don’t like the outcome, they try to change the rules. It’s just one more effort to try and undo the will of the people.”

Whether this will go anywhere in the Michigan Legislature isn’t clear. Even if dividing electors by district made sense, it is hard to see voters accepting a president such as Mr. Romney, who lost decisively and whose opponent got an absolute majority of the popular vote.

Speaking of odd ideas: Thirteen Republicans in the Michigan Senate apparently didn’t get the memo that when federal and state law conflict, federal law wins.

That’s been a settled issue since the Civil War. But last week, state Sen. Phil Pavlov and a dozen of his GOP colleagues introduced a bill that would outlaw federal regulation of any firearms and ammunition manufactured in Michigan.

You might have thought they would have learned in high school civics that you can’t do that. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives sent them a cautionary letter warning that no matter what state legislation might pass, provisions of any federal gun control act are still the law of the land.

But Mr. Pavlov, who has neither a law nor a college degree, said: “We are under a constant threat by the federal government to infringe on our Second Amendment rights.“

Perhaps he missed the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, not a group of local state senators, is charged with deciding what does or doesn’t infringe on someone’s constitutional rights.

Or possibly he and his colleagues are trying to please (or pander to) extremist firearms supporters, perhaps even to get some campaign contributions from them.

They may not remember that their party’s greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln, had definite views about the idea that states could decide to ignore the authority of federal law.

He felt that was treason, and waged a pretty significant conflict called the Civil War to show them the error of their ways.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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