Pennsylvania looks to alter state's electoral vote system

GOP leaders want to stop awarding all votes to the winner

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One year after requiring voters to show photo identification, state Republican leaders are set in 2013 to consider changing Pennsylvania's nearly two-century-old method of awarding its presidential votes. As with voter ID, the proposal is being met with howls of protest from Democrats.

Like 48 other states, Pennsylvania uses a winner-take-all system with its electoral votes: when Barack Obama won 52 percent of the state's vote on Nov. 6 to Mitt Romney's 47 percent, he bagged all 20 of them. A measure from state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, would instead award 18 of them according to the popular vote breakdown and give two others to the state's overall winner.

Under the plan Mr. Obama would have split the Pennsylvania haul with Mr. Romney 12 to 8. A similar plan put forward Wednesday by two GOP House members would award electoral votes by how many of the state's 18 congressional districts a candidate won, with the popular winner getting two extras. Under that plan Mr. Romney would have taken 13 electoral votes and Mr. Obama 7.

In their sponsorship memo, Reps. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery, and Seth Grove, R-York, wrote "the Congressional District Method will increase voter turnout and encourage candidates to campaign in all states rather than just those that are competitive. Most importantly, this method of selecting presidential electors will give a stronger voice to voters in all regions of our great Commonwealth."

Sen. Pileggi introduced a similar bill last year, but it was rebuffed in part because Republican congressmen were worried the district method would spur Democrats to fight harder for congressional seats in efforts to pick off electoral votes. His latest plan sidesteps that worry and is probably stronger legally: Democrats could argue that GOP-led gerrymandering of the districts improperly weighted the vote toward Republicans and violates constitutional equal protection standards.

The U.S. Constitution leaves the process of awarding electoral votes to the states. States experimented with different ways of awarding them in the first 40 years of the nation's history -- with many leaving the decision to state legislatures -- but nearly all moved to winner-take-all methods by 1836.

Pennsylvania has, of course, participated in all 57 presidential elections but has not awarded its electoral votes to a Republican since 1988. "Sen. Pileggi has heard from many constituents who believe their vote simply doesn't matter in Pennsylvania," his spokesman, Erik Arneson, said. "In the past that has been true for Democratic voters and could be that way again in the future."

When the state's College of Electors met Monday in Harrisburg to officially award Pennsylvania's votes, its president, Clifford Levine, a Pittsburgh attorney and leading fundraiser for Mr. Obama, tore into the proposal during a speech in the House chamber in Harrisburg. Recounting amendments through the nation's history to expand voting rights to African-Americans, women and those 18 and older, he told listeners including Republican Gov. Tom Corbett that the effort was out of step with constitutional principles on fair and open elections.

"For our democracy to flourish, our political leaders would best be advised to change their ideas and platforms in order to appeal to the broader electorate, rather than change the rules and procedures of elections to effectuate partisan gain," Mr. Levine said. "We will have future debates in these very chambers that will affect the fundamental right to vote, but let us always rely on facts and evidence, not supposition and rhetoric, and let us always be mindful of the constitutionally embedded requirement of universal suffrage."

Should GOP legislators in control of both houses rally around the change -- as they did voter ID -- there is little Democrats can do about it. Mr. Corbett endorsed the first Pileggi electoral vote plan in the summer of 2011 and the latest effort is "under review," according to gubernatorial spokesman Kevin Harley.

The National Journal reported last week that leaders in other Republican-controlled states that awarded their votes to Mr. Obama, including Michigan and Wisconsin, are considering similar changes. In Virginia, another barely blue presidential state, a GOP measure to award them entirely by congressional district wins has already been introduced.

If Pennsylvania and other swing states adopted the Virginia model, Mr. Romney would have won the presidency with 280 electoral votes to Mr. Obama's 258, according to an analysis by FairVote, a Maryland-based election reform group. If the swing states adopted the Pileggi model, Mr. Obama still would have won with a 36-vote electoral vote margin, down from the 106-vote cushion he enjoyed last month.

FairVote's executive director Rob Richie said the changes would not make presidential balloting fairer -- he advocates states awarding all their votes to the national popular vote winner -- or more states would have moved to it since making Martin Van Buren president 176 years ago.

"It's not going to pass the smell test," he said. "The political message to swing voters would be 'Look what they're willing to do to rig an election.' It's going to be high-risk, not only in state elections but the next presidential election. But it's tempting."

Mr. Pileggi's plan would essentially leave four to six electoral votes at stake in Pennsylvania, which will leave the big state "marginalized and ignored" by presidential campaigns, he added.

Mr. Levine, among other Democrats, have echoed that and asked why no Republican-voting states are adopting similar plans. "Is Texas going to split its vote in half, or are only blue battleground states rendering themselves irrelevant? Are we willing to sacrifice Pennsylvania's voice for the greater partisan good of the Republican party?" he asked.

Mr. Pileggi is still working on the final wording of his proposal and plans to introduce it early next year so it can be debated well in advance of the 2016 election, Mr. Arneson said. Should the law be approved it would not end campaigning for the state, he argued, noting Iowa and New Hampshire were both bigger battlegrounds than Pennsylvania this year even though they have six and four electoral votes respectively.

As to the Democratic criticisms, he said "the senator is not concerned about the impact on one party or another. At some point perhaps it would have a negative impact on a Republican candidate. The goal isn't to benefit one party or another, the goal is to make Pennsylvania electors closely reflect the popular vote."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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