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The Republican Electoral College-Gaming Plan in Pennsylvania

I wanted to circle back to this story which I mentioned in last night's Roundup, about a Pennsylvania proposal to apportion electoral votes by Congressional district.

The way it works now, the presidential and vice-presidential slate that wins the state gets all of the electoral votes.

In 2012, after redistricting, Pennsylvania will have 20 electoral votes and 18 congressional districts. Under Pileggi’s proposal, each of the districts would elect one presidential elector; the other two would be apportioned on the basis of the popular vote.

Only two other states allocate electoral votes by congressional district, Maine and Nebraska.

If this was in place in 2008, Barack Obama would have taken 11 electoral votes from Pennsylvania, and John McCain 10. This is nothing more than a ploy to distribute 9-12 electoral votes to Republicans from a state won by Democrats in every Presidential election since 1992. Now, there’s polling showing that Republicans may have a shot in Pennsylvania next year, which would reverse the impact of this. But with Republicans in the legislature and the Republican governor proposing it, they are clearly setting out to kneecap the Democrats.

Consider that this proposal is somewhat similar, though not entirely, to the National Popular Vote compact which several states have passed. Under that law, states would give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The catch is that the NPV would only go into effect if enough states signed on equaling 270 votes, or enough to mean that the national popular vote would determine the winner of the Presidential election. I believe in the NPV to rid ourselves of this ridiculous and distorting Electoral College system. The apportionment by Congressional district doesn’t remedy that: it doesn’t account for wide disparities in voting between Congressional districts (a district where a Democratic Presidential candidate wins by 40 points and a district where a Republican wins by 2 points would cancel each other out, for example), and small states with a lone Congressional district would still give a winner-take-all to their preferred candidate. It would not reflect properly the vote in the nation; it would just magnify the issue of gerrymandering.

But that’s not the point of this, because not every state is doing it at once, and there’s no condition whereby it doesn’t kick in until it’s determinative. This move by Pennsylvania would take effect immediately, leading to a distortion where Pennsylvania is the only meaningful state apportioning electors this way. What’s more, to the extent that other states will take this up, it would be states that have voted blue in recent Presidential elections, which now have the GOP running the show:

It doesn’t necessarily end there. After their epic sweep of state legislative and gubernatorial races in 2010, Republicans also have total political control of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three other big states that traditionally go Democratic and went for Obama in 2012. Implementing a Pennsylvania-style system in those three places—in Ohio, for example, Democrats anticipate controlling just 4 or 5 of the state’s 16 congressional districts—could offset Obama wins in states where he has expanded the electoral map, like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, or New Mexico. “If all these rust belt folks get together and make this happen that could be really dramatic,” says Carolyn Fiddler, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which coordinates state political races for the Dems.

Democrats would not be able to retaliate. The only states that John McCain won where Dems control both houses of the state legislature are Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia. West Virginia is too small for splitting the electoral votes to have much effect, and Mississippi has a Republican governor. That leaves Arkansas, another small state—and one where McCain won every district handily in 2008.

Obviously, Ohio and Wisconsin have the kinds of Republicans who would be attracted to a partisan move like this.

Republicans actually tried this in California in 2008. They were set to put together a ballot measure that would have apportioned electoral votes by Congressional district. An aggressive campaign to shine a spotlight on the tactic eventually led to the money for the initiative drying up. Pennsylvania is a different situation, because the legislature could take this up, and it wouldn’t go through the voters. The only option for Pennsylvanians is for Democrats to raise hell about distorting the already-distorted Electoral College process to make it impossible for Democrats to ever take the Presidency again.

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David Dayen

David Dayen