Don’t mess with electoral votes

January 1, 2013

After seeing their standard-bearers lose Pennsylvania in the last six presidential elections, Republicans in Harrisburg have apparently decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, change the rules.

A 2011 proposal that Pennsylvania do away with awarding its 20 electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis and switch to awarding them based on the congressional districts presidential candidates win fortunately went nowhere. So state House Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, is back with a new plan that would have Pennsylvania award its electoral votes proportionally, which it would be allowed to do under the U.S. Constitution.

This means that in the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama would have won 12 electoral votes, with Mitt Romney taking eight. As it stands, Obama took all 20 of the commonwealth’s electoral votes.

Awarding electoral votes proportionally would be a worthwhile idea if all 50 states adopted the plan at the same time. But the idea has only been floated by Republican legislators in swing states that Democrats have won in the last several elections, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Of course, legislators in such light-red states as Arizona or Georgia have not come forward with similar proposals. Like the voter ID law, this is simply about giving Republicans a head start in the presidential race and, in Pennsylvania, watering down the powerful sway Philadelphia has over statewide contests.

Aside from obviously trying to put a thumb on the scales, awarding electoral votes proportionally would be a permanent solution to what could very well be a temporary problem for Republicans. No state’s political allegiances are cast permanently in granite. Not all that long ago, West Virginia was once decisively in the Democrats’ corner, to the extent that it was carried by Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis is 1988 even as both candidates lost almost everywhere else. But, in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney racked up one of his biggest margins anywhere in West Virginia, beating Barack Obama there by 27 percent.

On the other hand, neighboring Virginia was once considered an assured Republican stronghold, but Obama has managed to win it in the last two presidential elections on the strength of younger voters moving in to the communities surrounding Washington, D.C. How the electoral map will shift in the next 20 or 30 years is anyone’s guess.

This shortsighted proposal could also backfire against Republicans in the near-term. Though a GOP presidential nominee has not carried Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush won it by a little over 2 percent in 1988, it’s not out of the party’s reach on the presidential level; Bush’s son, George W. Bush, came within 4 points of winning it in 2000, and 2 points in 2004. In the last election, Obama’s commanding 11-point win in 2008 was whittled down to 5 points. If the Romney campaign had spent more time and money in Pennsylvania, Obama’s victory margin might have been even smaller.

Let’s say that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the Republican presidential nominee in 2016; it’s not at all inconceivable that he could woo a sufficient number of suburban Philadelphia voters and tip Pennsylvania into the Republican column, thanks to New Jersey’s proximity and his relatively moderate record.

Rather than trying to unfairly tilt the playing field to their advantage, Pileggi and his fellow Republicans would be wiser to get behind a presidential candidate who would appeal to a wider swatch of voters, both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.



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