Why Texas Republicans Want a State Electoral College

Five blue-tinted hands holding up ballots and a blue background, with a large hand colored red pushing down on the ballots.

In June, the Texas GOP adopted its 2022 platform and while there are too many absurd and dangerous Republican proposals to mention here, there was one in particular that caught our eye: a state electoral college. Inspired by the federal Electoral College, this state electoral college would be used to elect statewide officials like the governor. Under the proposal, voters in each state Senate district would vote for electors rather than directly for candidates. These electors would then pick the winner. In today’s piece, we unpack this proposal and what it has to say about the current state of Republicans nationwide.

While Texas’ proposed electoral college sounds unusual, other states have had similar systems throughout history.

The Texas Republican Party’s proposal got a lot of attention, but it wouldn’t be the first state to use a system inspired by the federal Electoral College to elect statewide officials. Between 1917 and 1962, for example, Georgia used a voting system called the county unit system in statewide primary elections. Under this system, each county in the state was categorized as urban, town or rural. In primary elections, urban counties received six “unit votes,” town counties received four and rural counties received two. A candidate who won a plurality of the vote in a particular county received all of that county’s “unit votes” and then had to win a majority of “unit votes” to win the primary. With only eight urban counties and 121 rural counties in Georgia, candidates preferred by rural voters often easily defeated candidates backed by urban voters.

Mississippi also used to employ a similar system, one that is most akin to what the Texas GOP has proposed. In that state, candidates for statewide offices had to win both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of state House districts. If no candidate met this benchmark, then the state House picked between the two candidates with the most votes.

But it’s not just southern states with unusual electoral rules. To this day, Vermont has rules for statewide elections that, while not exactly the same as Mississippi or Georgia, are tangentially similar. In Vermont, if no candidate wins a majority of the popular vote, the Vermont General Assembly picks the winner in a combined vote of both the state House and Senate — sort of like how the U.S. House of Representatives elects the president if no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College.

These types of systems are often rooted in racism and inherently undemocratic.

What these state-level electoral college schemes have in common is that they’re often rooted in Jim Crow era measures to exclude Black voters from politics. Georgia, for instance, originally adopted the county unit system to preserve the electoral power of white, rural voters at the expense of the state’s minority and urban communities. Unsurprisingly, Mississippi’s system was also rooted in white supremacy. In a 2019 lawsuit challenging the state’s electoral rules, the plaintiffs noted the rules were adopted after the end of Reconstruction as one of a series of constitutional provisions adopted to exclude Black Mississippians from politics.

The reason these types of systems were so appealing to people who sought to exclude Black voters from politics is that they’re inherently undemocratic. Like the federal Electoral College, these statewide systems weigh certain votes more than others — in the case of Georgia and Mississippi, white votes counted more than Black votes. In Georgia, white voters in rural counties outvoted Black voters in more urban counties thanks to the county unit system. In Mississippi, state House districts were drawn so that white voters controlled the majority of them. 

In addition to this electoral imbalance, these systems (like the federal Electoral College) can also result in candidates losing their elections despite winning the popular vote. In 1946, for instance, Eugene Talmadge won the gubernatorial primary in Georgia despite losing the popular vote to James V. Carmichael because Carmichael won more sparsely-populated, heavily white rural counties. This kind of disparity is what led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the county unit system in 1963 for violating the principle of “one person, one vote.” Likewise, in the lead-up to Mississippi’s 2019 gubernatorial election, there was speculation that even if the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Jim Hood, won the popular vote, he might not win the election. Mississippi’s state House districts were gerrymandered to favor Republican voters, so it would’ve been very hard for Hood to win a majority of state House districts. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter since the Republican candidate, now-Gov. Tate Reeves, won both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of state House districts. Spurred by the 2019 lawsuit, Mississippi ultimately adopted a constitutional amendment in 2020 to eliminate this system entirely.

Vermont’s rules — which are still in effect — could also lead to the victory of a candidate who lost the popular vote. While the General Assembly traditionally picks the popular vote winner if no candidate wins a majority, in 2014, Republican Scott Milne actively urged legislators to elect him even though he trailed incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) in votes. While Milne didn’t succeed, his tactics now look like an augury of more recent antidemocratic moves by Republicans.

The Texas proposal underscores Republican contempt for democracy.

While not explicitly motivated by the same racial animus that inspired Georgia and Mississippi’s systems, Texas’ proposal would be equally undemocratic. By having electors from each state Senate district elect statewide officials, Texas Republicans would tilt the field toward their party. Since the state Senate districts are gerrymandered to favor Republicans, a Republican candidate could still win a majority of electors even if they don’t win the overall popular vote. The move, just like the gerrymanders of Texas’ legislative districts, is an attempt by Republicans to hold on to power in a state that’s rapidly trending towards Democrats.

Normally, when faced with electoral defeat, political parties are supposed to adapt by changing their policies to try to win more votes. But today’s GOP is not interested in doing so — they’re determined to enact their regressive agenda even if the broader public opposes it. That’s why they’ve proposed this undemocratic method for electing statewide officials. It’s why Republicans work so hard to pass bills restricting the right to vote in state after state. It’s also why Republicans relied on the courts to overturn Roe v. Wade and are now advancing a theory before the U.S. Supreme Court that could give them free rein to gerrymander as they please. Rather than try to adapt their policies to the public’s wishes, Republicans are turning away from democracy instead.