Republican legislators are proposing two alternative changes in how Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes in presidential campaigns. The General Assembly should reject each proposal.
The president is chosen by the Electoral College rather than by the nationwide popular vote. The U.S. Constitution guarantees each state as many votes in the Electoral College as the state has U.S. senators and representatives. The Constitution also gives three electoral votes to the District of Columbia. Of the 538 total Electoral College votes, Pennsylvania has 20.
Each state is free to decide for itself how to award its electoral votes. Under current law, 48 states (including Pennsylvania) follow the winner-take-all rule. In other words, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state receives 100 percent of the state’s votes in the Electoral College. Two states – Nebraska and Maine – award two of their electoral votes to the statewide winner and the balance of their electoral votes to the winning candidate in each congressional district.
Prior to the 2012 election, Republicans considered a proposal to award two of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote and the 18 others to the winner in each congressional district. Proponents argued that this proposal would prevent voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from overwhelming the rest of the state. Although Republican leaders ultimately shelved the proposal, several legislators intend to reintroduce it this year.
President Obama won Pennsylvania’s popular vote over Gov. Mitt Romney, 52 percent to 47 percent. As a result, Obama received all 20 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. However, if the proposal to award electoral votes by congressional district had been in effect, Romney would have received 13 of the state’s electoral votes to only seven for Obama. In short, despite losing Pennsylvania’s popular vote decisively, Romney would have won the state where it counted: In the Electoral College.
The fact that Romney would have received almost two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes under this proposal illustrates how unfairly the state’s congressional district boundaries have been drawn. More than half of Pennsylvania’s registered voters are Democrats. The Democratic candidates for president, the U.S. Senate, attorney general, state treasurer and auditor general each won the statewide popular vote.
Similarly, 83,000 more Pennsylvanians voted Democratic for the U.S. House of Representatives than voted Republican. Nevertheless, largely because of gerrymandering, Republicans won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the House. Awarding electoral votes on the basis of these malapportioned congressional districts would further reward partisan gamesmanship.
The second proposal is new. It apparently would award two electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner and the remainder in proportion to each candidate’s popular vote in the state. This proposal would address the complaint that winner-take-all disenfranchises supporters of the losing candidate even when that candidate wins a significant share of a state’s popular vote.
Awarding most of a state’s electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote in that state would be defensible if it were adopted in every state. Unfortunately, there is a glaring problem. Specifically, the proposal appears to be under serious consideration only in Pennsylvania and other states that Obama won but which have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
Therefore, the proposal appears to be part of an effort to give the GOP an edge in future elections. For example, if the proposal had been in effect in 2012, Obama would have received only 12 of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
Despite the fact he lost the statewide popular vote, Romney would have received eight electoral votes. In contrast, Obama would have won none of Texas’ 38 electoral votes even though Obama won almost 42 percent of that state’s popular vote.
In addition to being unfair, this proposal could diminish Pennsylvania’s clout. Since 1980, the losing presidential candidate in Pennsylvania has averaged 44 percent of the popular vote. Therefore, the winner and the loser in future presidential elections would likely split 16 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes equally under this proposal; only four electoral votes would actually be in doubt. The largest concentration of Pennsylvania voters lives in the southeast; furthermore, suburban voters around Philadelphia are among the most likely to change their party preference from one election to another.
Because the Philadelphia television market is one of the country’s most expensive in which to advertise, a presidential candidate would be much more likely to compete in Pennsylvania if all 20 electoral votes were at stake than if only four were up for grabs.
We need election reform. However, each of these proposed changes would be a step in the wrong direction.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s small business advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.
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