Analysis of the Congressional-District Method of Awarding Electoral Votes

Summary

Under the congressional-district method of awarding electoral votes, one electoral vote is awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in each of a state’s congressional districts.  The state’s remaining two electoral votes are typically awarded to the statewide winner.

  • The congressional-district method could be implemented nationwide by means of a federal constitutional amendment, or it could be implemented unilaterally by individual states (as done by Maine in 1969, Nebraska in 1992, Michigan in 1892, and numerous other states in earlier years). 
  • The congressional-district method, if used nationwide, would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote.  In three of the elections between 2000 and 2016 (namely 2000, 2012, and 2016), the winner of the most votes nationwide would not have won the Presidency if the congressional-district method had been applied to election returns.  In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the congressional-district method would have yielded the same national winner as the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes; however, the winner would have received a considerably larger percentage of the electoral votes than his percentage of the national popular vote. 
  • The congressional-district method would not make every voter in every state politically relevant.  Instead, presidential campaigns would be focused only on the very small number of closely divided congressional districts.  Thus, the congressional-district method would worsen the current situation in which three out of four states and three out of four voters in the United States are ignored in the general-election campaign for President.  Instead of campaigning in only a dozen or so closely divided battleground states (which contain about 30% of the U.S. population), presidential candidates would campaign only in the very small number of presidentially competitive battleground districts.  In 2016, the major-party presidential candidates were within six percentage points of each other in only 42 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts (i.e., about 10% of the districts). This compares to about 30% of the U.S. population that lives in the dozen closely divided states.  In short, the congressional-district method would have been even less accurate than the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes in terms of reflecting the national popular vote.
  • The congressional-district method would not make every vote equal. There are six sources of inequality inherent in the congressional-district method. Each is substantial, and each is considerably larger than the inequalities that the courts have found to be constitutionally tolerable when reviewing the fairness of redistricting. 
    • 3.6-to-one inequality because of the two senatorial electoral votes that each state receives above and beyond the number warranted by its population
    • 1.75-to-1 inequality because of the process of apportioning U.S. House seats among the states,
    • 3.85-to-1 inequality because of voter differences in turnout between districts, 
    • 1.67-to-1 inequality because of voter turnout differences in turnout between states,
    • 1.27-to-1 inequality because of population changes during the decade after each census.
    • 7.1-to-1 differences, from district to district, in the number of votes that enable a candidate to win an electoral vote within a state.
  • District allocation of electoral votes would magnify the effects of gerrymandering of congressional districts, and increase the incentive to gerrymander.
  • Presidential campaigns would not be attracted to a state by the congressional-district method, but, instead, only to the relatively few closely divided district(s) in the state.  For example, recent presidential campaigns have paid attention to Nebraska’s closely divided 2nd congressional district (the Omaha area), while totally ignoring the rural and politically non-competitive 1st and 3rd districts. 
  • The congressional-district method would be difficult to install on a state-by-state basis, because it imposes a substantial first-mover disadvantage on early adopters.  A state reduces its own influence if it divides its electoral votes while other states use winner-take-all.  Moreover, each additional state that adopts the congressional-district method increases the influence of the remaining “hold-out” winner-take-all states. 
  • The congressional-district method of awarding electoral votes would make a bad system worse because it would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote, would not make every voter in every state politically relevant, and it would not make every vote equal.

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