By MITCHELL SOMMERS
Let’s take it as a given that, as a way to elect a president, the Electoral College has, shall we say, a few structural flaws. If you don’t live in a “battleground” state (a term I think should be saved for places like Somalia, not Ohio), you might as well be a moldy lump of cheese for all the presidential candidates care about you. And there’s the whole “Say, how’d George W. Bush get to be president when he lost the popular vote?” thingy, and no, I’m not over it, and I’m never going to be over it.
Still, it’s the system we have. Everyone knows the rules, goofy though they are. And those rules have kept my state of Pennsylvania’s 21 (now reduced to 20 thanks to loss of a congressional district based on census data) electoral votes consistently in play. Though Democrats have won the state the last five presidential elections, it’s been competitive enough that both parties have fought hard for it. (It was 55/44 for Obama in 2008, 51/48 for Kerry in 2004, 51/46 for Gore in 2000).
Again, everyone knows the rules. Except when the rules change. Which is what some Pennsylvania Republicans want to do. More specifically, their intent is to structurally change the Electoral College in Pennsylvania to make it more difficult for Barack Obama to win the state’s electoral votes even if he were to win its popular vote.
Nicholas Pileggi, the suburban Pennsylvania leader of the State Senate, and Tom Corbett, its Republican governor, have teamed up to present a proposal to change the winner-take-all distribution in favor of a distribution that awards those votes by congressional district. Win that district, win that vote. Lose that district, lose the vote. If you win the state’s popular vote, you get an additional two votes.
Now, the obvious effect of this is that it takes Pennsylvania out of that (I know, I hate the term, I’m using it anyway) battleground status. Without its delegate-rich vote count in the winner-take-all mix, Pennsylvania’s unlikely to get the attention of presidential candidates it has in years past, which may lead to loss of Federal dollars spent in Pennsylvania to get those votes. Which, if you live in Pennsylvania, should bother you. Terry Madonna, of the Franklin and Marshall College Center for Politics and Public Affairs, has an excellent round up of why this is all bad for Pennsylvania.
For the rest of you in the other 49 states and D.C., as well as people in Pennsylvania, here’s what really should bother you. This proposal is intrinsically small “D” undemocratic. It is as close as you can get to rigging an election without actually tampering with ballots. You can see why, looking at the 2008 numbers. With the old 19 congressional district map, Obama won nine districts, McCain won 11, and Obama won the state’s total vote, which would have meant going from getting 21 votes to getting 11 compared to McCain would have received ten, or a one-vote differential.
Had McCain picked up one more congressional district—say, for instance one of the suburban Philadelphia districts that he lost by 55/44 or 54/45 margins—John McCain could have ended up winning twelve votes by district, with Obama getting 9, plus two for winning the state, though by a significantly reduced margin.
You know what’s worse than winning the popular vote while losing the electoral college? Winning a state’s popular vote while losing its electoral votes, thus causing you to lose the Electoral College. That’s like an echo chamber of unfairness. Granted, that wouldn’t have happened even if this system was in place in 2008—Obama’s margin in the Electoral College would have still carried him. But it could this time. And with congressional reapportionment coming up this year, and with Republicans in control of both houses and with a Republican governor, those districts could be drawn to make at least some of them even less competitive on the Republican side, making it even more likely that the popular vote and electoral vote will not match up.
Not all Republicans are on board for this plan. According to Pete DeCoursey from Capitolwire.com, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus opposes it because it prevents Republicans from getting all those 20 votes (though he later denied saying it). And Republican State Committee Chairman told Politico he opposed it because it would remove the state from that battleground status. And, again from Capitolwire.com, Congressman Joseph Pitts has indicated his fears that Republicans in suburban Philadelphia swing districts fear extra targeting by the Democratic National Committee if each district becomes a mini-battleground.
But any electoral proposal is going to have some unintended consequences and backlash. That’s not the critical thing going on here. The critical thing is the intent to take Pennsylvania’s votes—and the votes of Democrats in particular—out of contention on the presidential level and to create a structural impediment to Obama’s reelection. This goes way beyond the truism that elections have consequences. Consequences like unfavorable reapportionment are normal consequences. Both sides do it, and until you create non-partisan reapportionment in each state, they always will. This is different. This is as different as what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio and the attempts to destroy public employee unions. It is as different as what happened in Texas a few years back when it did a mid-decade reapportionment of congressional districts to get rid of Democrats. It is part of an attempt to leave the trappings of democracy in place, while ridding them of their substance, namely meaningful competition.
Again from the Capitolwire article, here’s a quote from Matthew Brann, chairman of the Northeast Central Caucus. “If we’re a state in play, with 20 electoral votes, then I think we probably shouldn’t do it. If we are not, then there is a case to be made for doing this.”
In other words, hey, whatever works.