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December 09, 2016
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Gaming the Electoral College

Once again Pennsylvania Republicans are proposing to change how their state allocates Electoral College votes in presidential elections.

Recalling your history, you will know that the Founding Fathers were leery of direct popular election of a president. Instead, they created a system where voters choose electors, who then cast their ballots for the president and vice president. (The downside of this system is that a person might win the presidency with a majority of Electoral College votes without winning the nationwide popular vote. This was true in the 2000 victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore. In fact, in some years, the system gives an advantage to the Republicans and in other years to the Democrats.)

Throughout much of American history, all states, which establish their own election laws, have followed a winner-take-all formula in the Electoral College. However, two states—Maine, since 1972, and Nebraska, since 1996—have adopted a scheme that ties one electoral vote to each U.S. Congressional district. If a presidential candidate carries the district, he wins its elector.

In 2011, Pennsylvania Republicans proposed this very formula for their state, but it never went very far after there was so much Republican pushback over concerns that unknown, unintended consequences might put “safe” Republican-dominated Congressional districts at risk in presidential election years. Other Republicans worried that it would dilute Pennsylvania’s power as an influential battleground state courted by presidential candidates.

Now comes Pennsylvania state senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester County), who has put forth a new variation. Three weeks ago in Harrisburg, he introduced a bill to award electoral votes proportionally, based on the percentage of the popular vote each candidate wins.

Following the Constitutional formula whereby each state’s total of electoral votes is equal to its number of seats in the U.S. House, plus its two U.S. Senate seats, Pennsylvania currently has 20 electoral votes (down from 21 following the last census and reapportionment). Under Pileggi’s new plan, (1) the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote would be awarded two electors (representing the state’s two U.S. Senators), and (2) the other 18 would be divided among the presidential candidates according to a formula that multiplies the remaining number of electors by the percentage of each candidate’s popular vote. (If these rules had been in place in 2012, President Barack Obama would have won 12 instead of 20 electoral votes. Romney would have won eight instead of zero.)

This new plan avoids the most objectionable aspect of the abandoned 2011 PA GOP plan to award electors by Congressional district, a method clearly vulnerable to partisan manipulation via gerrymandering—the drawing of congressional district lines to give advantage to a particular political party. (In fact, 2010 saw many GOP-controlled state legislatures go on a gerrymandering spree that allowed Republicans to keep their U.S. House majority even though Americans voted for more Democrats.)

Pileggi’s new plan is a clever improvement not only because it is less susceptible to legislative manipulation like gerrymandering, but also because its foundation rests on a truer representation of the popular vote where each and every Pennsylvanian’s presidential vote would count. It’s hard to argue against such a plan until you consider it as part of a wider GOP strategy. So far all of the states that have considered changing how they allocate electors have Republican-dominated legislatures. And this raises the suspicion that the GOP is seeking to game the electoral system.

Until a meaningful majority of the 50 states adopts the popular vote as the basis for awarding electors, the Pennsylvania Republicans plan should be seen for what it is—partisan manipulation to make it easier for their party to win the White House in future elections.