Pennsylvania G.O.P. Weighs Electoral Vote Changes for 2012
By Katherine Q. Seelye / New York Times / September 19, 2011
The newly empowered Republicans in Pennsylvania are considering changing the way the state awards its electoral votes in presidential elections despite growing concerns by some Republicans that the move could backfire
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he will support the measure.
A new bill would award electoral votes by Congressional district, all but guaranteeing that both candidates would win at least some electoral votes even if they lost the state’s popular vote. It could even swing the outcome of a close presidential election.
The measure is aimed in the near term at reducing President Obama’s total electoral votes in 2012; no Republican nominee has won Pennsylvania — or any of its electoral votes — since 1988.
Democrats loathe the idea, but they have no power to stop it. Some Republicans, too, are wary, worried that such a change could end up costing their candidate electoral votes and hurting their down-ballot candidates.
The bill appears on track for hearings early next month and could pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly in time for next year’s election. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he will support it.
Now, Pennsylvania, like most states, has a “winner take all” system, in which the winner of the statewide popular vote gets all the electoral votes; in 2008, Barack Obama won 55 percent of the state’s popular vote and 100 percent of its 21 electoral votes.
The proposed change would award the electoral votes based on the winner of each Congressional district. Redistricting, which is controlled by Republicans, will leave Pennsylvania with 18 districts next year, 12 Republican seats and 6 Democratic seats. The state will have 20 electoral votes, one for each of the 18 House districts plus two others for its senators.
Under the proposal, the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote would win the two others. If the change were in place next year, Mr. Obama, as the Democratic nominee, could win the popular vote and carry the six Democratic districts but end up with just 8 electoral votes, while the Republican nominee would take 12.
Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, award their electoral votes by Congressional district. Both are small, so they are not good indicators for what this method might portend in a big state like Pennsylvania.
But a switch in Pennsylvania could have long-term national consequences. It could prompt similar moves in other big states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where Republicans recently took control. It could even bolster the stalled movement to dump the Electoral College and elect the president by popular vote, although that day seems a long way off.
The plan is being pushed in Harrisburg, the capital, by the Senate majority leader, Dominic Pileggi. He said Friday in an interview that the change would make the system more fair because voters in each Congressional district would be awarding their own electoral vote.
“The goal is to have the votes in the Electoral College more closely reflect the popular vote,” he said. “This is one way to do that.”
But Democrats say this would do the opposite and is aimed at reducing the influence of big Democratic districts like Philadelphia in presidential elections.
“The motivation for this is somewhere between despicable and reprehensible,” said former Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat. “In a close election, that could be devastating.”
Democrats also worry that splitting the electoral votes would diminish the state’s historic role as a presidential battleground because only a few electoral votes would be up for grabs. And candidates would skip most of the districts where the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Even some Republicans are worried that the proposal is a gamble and could backfire.
Many, including the state party chairman, Robert Gleason, are increasingly confident that a Republican can win the state outright in 2012. But under the proposal, the party’s nominee might win only 14 at best (12 from the Republican districts plus the two others). Moreover, the change could put some Republican members of Congress at risk.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said that Democrats would probably not bother spending time and money trying to increase turnout in Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia. Instead, he said, they would focus on trying to unseat the moderate Republicans who represent the swing suburban districts.
“I don’t think the Republican leaders have thought about the political consequences of this,” Dr. Madonna said, even though they are trying to strengthen the Republican districts as they redraw the Congressional boundaries. “They should be careful what they wish for.”
Representative Jim Gerlach, a Republican from Chester County in suburban Philadelphia, said he and his colleagues were still evaluating the bill. They want to try to meet its “goals,” he said, but without “unduly risking the future of our hard-fought and hard-won Congressional districts.”
At a state Republican meeting on Friday in Harrisburg, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee and the keynote speaker, told reporters that the decision was up to the state. Still, he said, “I have our sights set on winning 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania.”
That would probably not happen under the proposed change because Mr. Obama would almost certainly carry at least Philadelphia.
Mr. Pileggi, the bill’s sponsor, said he had heard the growing complaints and was open to alternative suggestions.
Change, he said, “always brings questions and concerns and raises apprehension, and that’s a natural process,” he said. But he did not expect these concerns to stop his bill.
“If anything,” Mr. Pileggi said, “my original expectation for a timeline has accelerated.”