It is no secret that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies have, like newly elected Republicans in other states, used the positions of authority they grabbed in 2010 to make changes designed to benefit their party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights harms individual state, county and municipal employees, as well as teachers. But, from a political standpoint, the most dramatic damage done by the changes Walker and his allies have fought so hard to achieve is to the ability of unions that represent public employees and teachers to influence the electoral process.

Public-sector and education unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have for decades been powerful political players in Great Lakes and Upper Midwest battleground states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And they have usually, though not always, favored Democrats. By undermining the ability of those unions to collect dues, flex their muscles at election time and generally engage in political action, Walker and Republican legislators did significant service to the Republican Party’s presidential prospects in Wisconsin — as have Republican governors and legislators in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and other states.

Similarly, the Republican Legislature passed and the governor signed a voter ID law that Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign identify as a scheme to suppress turnout among students, minorities, elderly and rural voters. Republican legislators moved the state’s presidential primary date from February to April, and they shifted the primary election date for congressional seats from September to August, when working families are on vacation and students are away from college. They are fighting efforts to ease the burden the new voter ID law places on students. And they recently threatened to give the governor the power to veto election rules, which have traditionally been made by a nonpartisan board.

All of these moves have significance not just for state politics but for federal politics and the 2012 election.

The potential impact of the rule changes on U.S. House and Senate races has already been well detailed. “We (have been noting) Republican efforts to suppress the vote nationwide that could prevent 5 MILLION Americans from voting. According to The New York Times, the voter fraud Republicans say they’re preventing simply isn’t an issue. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes,” says Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee political director Crystal King. “The scary thing is, it just might work. Enough votes could be lost to states like Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada and Virginia to hand the Senate — and the White House — to the GOP.”

Now comes another twist on the road to the White House.

A veteran Republican legislator who has been one of Walker’s closest allies in the state Assembly, Dan LeMahieu, R-Cascade, is proposing to radically alter how Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes are awarded in the 2012 presidential contest.

This is partisanship at its crudest — a radical, potentially definitional rule change, proposed and potentially implemented on the eve of a close election that could be decided by a handful of electoral votes. And it’s not just happening in Wisconsin. It is part of a national push by Republicans, who have been using the temporary control they gained in traditional battleground states to make permanent political changes. And it adds a new twist to the old game of gerrymandering.

Like a proposal made earlier this year by Republicans in Pennsylvania, LeMahieu’s legislation would end the practice of awarding Wisconsin’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who actually won the state. Instead, the votes would be distributed based on a complex formula that would give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and then assign the other eight based on results from the state’s congressional districts.

Practically, what this means is that Wisconsin’s role in national politics could be entirely redefined in a way that serves the Republicans while undermining the Democrats.

Here’s how it might work: Wisconsin has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, and polling suggests there is a good chance it will do so again in 2012. But, instead of all 10 Wisconsin electoral votes going to the Democratic nominees, presumably President Obama and Vice President Biden, they might get as few as four.

How so?

When they redrew the state’s congressional districts earlier this year, Walker and the Republicans concentrated Democratic voters in a handful of districts while carefully drawing the majority of the state’s districts so that Republicans would have a chance to win — and in some cases would be prohibitive favorites.

Thus, in 2012, Obama’s winning margin would be generated out of congressional districts that contain the very Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee. Obama could also run good numbers in communities such as Stevens Point and Superior, which are solid Democratic voting bases in areas surrounded by more conservative regions. But Republicans could narrowly win as many as six gerrymandered congressional districts and get all their Electoral College votes.

Thus, with one simple rule change, the Republicans could game the 2012 presidential election not just in Wisconsin but in a way that, if the national Electoral College split is close, could provide a significant — perhaps even game-changing — boost for the Republican nominee.

The Electoral College should not exist. It is a vestige of an old order that accepted slavery and denied the right to vote to women and to people who did not own property. It was designed to diminish the power of the popular vote. And it has done just that. As recently as 2000, a candidate who lost the election by almost 600,000 votes nationally, George W. Bush, became president.

But, as bad as the Electoral College may be, the one thing that is worse is a politically gamed Electoral College, where one party collects all the votes from the states that back its nominee while the other party is forced to divide the votes of the states it wins. That’s what Rep. LeMahieu is proposing. His legislation is purely partisan, and purely wrong.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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