Dominic Pileggi

Pennsylvania backed down the last time they tried to change the electoral vote system to the benefit of Republicans, but maybe this time they’ll follow through:

On December 3, Dominic Pileggi, the powerful Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state Senate, announced that he plans to introduce legislation that would change how the state allocates its electoral votes. This shouldn’t be a surprise: Pileggi was one of the Pennsylvania politicians behind the preelection plan to change Electoral College rules.

Before the election, Pileggi’s plan (backed by a mysterious dark-money group called All Votes Matter) was to allocate electoral votes by congressional district, with the winner of each district receiving one electoral vote and the statewide winner getting a two-electoral-vote bonus. That might not seem like a big deal. But Pennsylvania, like other blue states in the upper Midwest, was subjected to a very effective Republican gerrymander after the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans won 13 of its 18 districts in 2012, so if Pileggi’s preelection plan had been in effect, Obama could have been awarded as few as 7 of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, despite winning the state.

Pileggi’s postelection scheme has a new twist. Instead of awarding electoral votes by congressional district, it would award them in relation to the statewide popular vote, with a two-electoral-vote bonus for the winner. That would prevent blatantly undemocratic effects like a candidate losing a state’s popular vote but still winning its electoral votes. But it would still have a similar effect to Pileggi’s earlier idea—it would ensure that at least some of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, which have gone to Democrats in every election since 1992, would go to Republicans. In a close election, that could change the outcome.

This version of the scheme avoids infecting the electoral college vote with a partisan gerrymander. If does make a state completely irrelevant as far as the Presidential election is concerned, however. Relatively close states like Pennsylvania aren’t going to give up more than a 10-10, 11-9 or, in a real landslide, 12-8 split (that would come in the unlikely event of 55.6% of the two-party vote or higher). There’s no way you could get to 13-7, where the popular vote would have to be above 61% in favor of the victor. So the most you could realistically get out of Pennsylvania in that case is 4 electoral votes, and more likely 2. That would make the state the least important state in the entire union in terms of electoral vote advantage. This is what Colorado figured out when they flirted with this idea; they ultimately decided against it.

Now, Pileggi’s real plan here is to just hand over a certain amount of electoral votes to Republicans just for showing up. Democrats have won Pennsylvania in the last six elections in a row, and so giving Republicans 8 or 9 automatic electoral votes gives them a decided advantage.

Of course, the real point here is that the electoral college is a dumb system that invites this kind of treachery. The better solution is the one practiced in practically every country in the world, to make the winner of the head of state election the individual or party who receives the most votes. Why this is controversial has mostly to do with the tyranny of Constitutional tradition. If Pennsylvania wants to distribute their electoral votes by popular vote, I agree. They could join the National Popular Vote.

David Dayen

David Dayen