Democracy may get a whole new look when it comes to presidential politics in 2012. The Electoral College will still bring the next commander in chief to the White House, but tweaks to the system could change the rules of the game.
After the 2000 election recount drama, polling showed that most Americans wanted to replace the electoral vote system with direct popular election of the president.
But Americans generally don't pay much attention to the mechanics of how they choose the president.
Politicians do pay attention, especially when presidential elections seem to be shaping up as close ones.
Switch to a Maine-Nebraska system
That explains the flurry of excitement in the political world over a Republican proposal to scrap Pennsylvania’s winner-take-all system of awarding its 20 electoral votes and instead allocate 18 of them based on the vote for president in each of the state’s congressional districts, 12 of which are now held by Republican members. The two other electoral votes would be awarded to the candidate who won the most votes statewide.
The proposal, sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, and backed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, would give Pennsylvania the same method of allocating electoral votes used in Maine and Nebraska.
If enacted, this might help the 2012 Republican presidential nominee garner a dozen electoral votes in Pennsylvania and tip the scales of a White House victory.
Or it could backfire, if the nominee runs such a strong race that he would have won Pennsylvania outright under winner-take-all rules — as happened in 1988 and nearly happened in 2004. Pileggi’s plan might mean the GOP candidate would get only 11 or 12 electoral votes, rather than 20.
If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. The complicated rules are written into the Constitution. It gives state legislatures sole power to choose how states choose their presidential electors. Americans don’t vote directly for president but for slates of electors, pledged to a particular candidate.
Each state gets a number of presidential electors equal to its membership in the House and Senate. Pennsylvania got 21 in 2008 and will get 20 next year.
How winner-take-all works
All states other than Maine and Nebraska use the winner-take-all system: the candidate who gets the most popular votes in the state gets all of its electoral votes.
That means that, as with Republican John McCain in 2008 in Missouri, for example, a candidate can win with a margin of just 0.1 percent, or about 4,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, and get all of that state’s electoral votes.
Under a winner-take-all system, the losing candidate can come close to a plurality and get nothing. Barack Obama got 49 percent of the votes in Missouri — but no electoral votes. Of course the same system worked to Obama’s benefit and hurt McCain in North Carolina, where the GOP nominee lost by only 0.3 percent of the vote.
Pileggi spokesman Erik Arneson said, “We’re hearing from some Republicans who believe that the Republican nominee is likely to win Pennsylvania, and thus they believe this (proposal) would benefit the Democratic candidate. But from Sen. Pileggi’s perspective, that misses the whole point which is to more fairly distribute our electoral votes based on the popular vote in Pennsylvania.”
He added, “Our focus is on strengthening the voice of individual voters — many of whom in Pennsylvania believe now that their vote in presidential elections is meaningless.”
One Pennsylvania-based Republican consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has clients on both sides of the controversy, noted that a Republican presidential candidate has only carried Pennsylvania once in the past 25 years, in 1988. He thinks that's likely to remain the pattern for years to come.
Since Democratic presidential candidates will usually win the state, switching to a Maine-Nebraska system would help the GOP over the long term. “From a strictly partisan point of view, we are going to benefit,” he said.
Democrats see power grab
Pennsylvania Democrats, who became the minority in both houses of the legislature as a result of the 2010 elections, see Pileggi’s plan as a power grab that will undermine voters’ faith in the electoral system.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs, said, “For the first time in history, we have one political party which is using their temporary hold on power to try to permanently fix future elections ... This is essentially an affirmative action program for Republican electoral votes.”
He asked, “If this state had gone Republican the last five times (in presidential elections), would Dominic Pileggi and Tom Corbett be proposing to divide the electoral votes up?”
Leach said Pileggi, as one of the GOP leaders designing the new congressional districts in the state, will “be drawing the very congressional districts that he wants to apportion votes by.”
Another Democratic opponent of the plan, Rep. Mike Gerber, also from the Philadelphia suburbs, said, “Sen. Pileggi is a very thoughtful, deliberate lawmaker. I’m certain he understands this presidential election could go either way in Pennsylvania and therefore it’s plausible this proposal would result in helping Democrats and hurting Republicans.”
He wonders whether the Pileggi proposal is an indication that GOP leaders “worry that the Republican primaries might produce an ultra-conservative candidate who can’t carry Pennsylvania.”
Whether Pileggi's plan is adopted or not, there are already some lessons here:
- First, as with redistricting of House seats, in which new district lines are drawn every ten years based on population shifts, it’s difficult to do electoral vote reform in anything other than a political way. Whatever its motivation might be, “reform” is never entirely neutral in its effects.
- Second, it’s not surprising that partisans will sometimes seek to change the rules when it might benefit their party’s candidate.
In 2004 it was Democrats in Colorado who proposed to scrap the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes and change to a proportional allocation. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would have gotten some of the state’s nine electoral votes, even if he failed to get a majority of the popular vote in Colorado. Given the chance to vote on this ballot measure, Colorado voters rejected it.
Obama wins one in Omaha
Despite the Democratic opposition to the Pileggi bill, only three years ago Democrats were quite enthusiastic about Nebraska’s system — the very same design which Pileggi wants to make the law in Pennsylvania.
Choosing electors by congressional district works very differently in different states. In a Republican state such as Nebraska which has a lot of its Democrats concentrated in one Omaha-based congressional district, the system helped gain one electoral vote for Obama.
While Pileggi’s proposed electoral change might hurt Democrats in Pennsylvania, there are a few Democrats in other states pushing for similar legislation to award electoral votes by congressional district.
In Democratic-dominated Massachusetts, Democratic state Rep. Robert Koczera has sponsored a bill to shift to awarding electoral votes by congressional district because he thinks voters in each district ought to be heard. But he admits, “I’ve had difficulty in moving the bill” — Democratic leaders aren’t interested.
In South Carolina, Democratic state Sen. Phil Leventis has introduced such a bill, which he acknowledges is not going to make progress in the Republican-dominated legislature.
But he supports the idea because he thinks it would increase voter turnout and because “it gives a reason for a Democratic presidential candidate to come to South Carolina” in the fall campaign. “There’s none right now.”
If Leventis’s bill had been in effect in South Carolina in 2008, Obama would have gotten one electoral vote from the state, instead of none.
Meanwhile in Democratic-dominated New Jersey and Washington state, Republican lawmakers have proposed similar bills.