Hands off the Electoral College!
The 57th Electoral College convened Dec. 17 and Pennsylvania's 20 electors unanimously selected as president and vice president Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who carried the state with 53 percent of the vote.
In Pennsylvania, as in 47 other states, the statewide winners select the electors. Recently, proposals have been offered to alter how electors are chosen. Presented under the guise of reform, they would result in profoundly partisan and unfair outcomes that could forever change our political landscape.
The U.S. Constitution establishes the Electoral College, providing that each state is to appoint "in such Manner as the Legislature, thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." Based on the recent census, Pennsylvania is entitled to two senators and 18 representatives, thus 20 electors.
Our founders created the Electoral College as a compromise between those who wanted Congress to select the president and those who believed that voters should directly elect the president. Allowing for separate statewide elections of electors, instead of a national election, addressed both small states' fear that they would lose influence and the founders' concern that a regional candidate, without broad support, could become president.
The founders also debated the method of selecting electors. Ultimately, they left this up to the states. Initially, many legislatures chose the electors. By the early 19th century, most states allowed for the statewide victors to select all of the allotted electors. Today, prior to the election, each presidential candidate submits a slate of pledged electors to the appropriate state official, and the slate of the winning candidate is selected.
In recent elections, certain states, including Pennsylvania, have become "battleground states," where elections traditionally are close and candidates spend considerable effort persuading voters. In 2008 and in 2012, Barack Obama carried many critical battleground states after typically hard-fought campaigns.
With statewide elections, each candidate has a fair opportunity to win; statewide boundaries are not subject to political manipulation as are state and congressional districts. However, party partisans, frustrated by recent losses, are now seeking to unlevel the playing field by altering the traditional method of selecting electors. The consequences would be devastating to our system of government.
Last year, Pennsylvania's Senate Republican leader proposed to change our system of selecting electors. Instead of allowing the statewide winner to choose the electors, they would be selected from each of our 18 congressional districts, with only two chosen from the statewide vote. Those congressional districts, which the Republican Party designed in 2011, have been highly gerrymandered, as reflected in the 2012 congressional elections: Pennsylvania Democratic candidates received 75,000 more votes statewide than Republican candidates, but Republicans won 13 seats and Democrats only five.
If the General Assembly had adopted that proposed change, the electoral vote in Pennsylvania this year would have been very different. Mitt Romney would have received 13 electoral votes and President Obama would have received only seven votes, despite Mr. Obama's decisive statewide win. That result would have defied our constitutional principles and undermined the basic premise of fair and free elections -- that the candidate who receives the most votes shall prevail.
Soon after President Obama's 2012 victory, the same Republican leader offered yet another proposal to change the manner of selecting Pennsylvania electors. That plan seeks to split electors based on the relative vote each candidate receives. If that plan had been in place this year, Barack Obama would have received no more than 12 of the state's 20 electoral votes.
The revised proposal reflects a radical departure from how we have conducted elections for two centuries. If Pennsylvania became the third state to split its electors -- lightly populated Maine and Nebraska are the only states that do so now -- it would have little influence in future presidential elections, diminishing the voice of Pennsylvania on the national stage.
Worse, it seems a more nefarious nationwide scheme is being orchestrated by far-right strategists.
In 2010, Republicans took control of state legislatures in many battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida, which have voted Democratic in recent presidential elections. Instead of listening to voters, Republican leaders in those states have recently proposed similar drastic changes to the elector-selection process, seeking a pro rata allocation of electors in their states.
These partisans assert this allocation is fair because the winner-take-all approach deprives the losing party of a voice. What these partisan Republicans do not address -- and what every voter and journalist in America should ask -- is whether the pro rata systems are being proposed in red states, where Republicans control the state government and which vote Republican in presidential elections. Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Missouri apparently will retain the winner-take-all selection method. Only in blue states are proposals being made to dilute Democratic strength. The result would be a country of red states and irrelevant states, with preordained election results.
Our current system works. Party success fluctuates from year to year. Democrats in 2012 need only look to Republican victories in 2010 to understand that our founders designed our government to change and respond to the will of the people. For our democracy to flourish, our political leaders would best be advised to change their ideas and platforms to appeal to America's voters, rather than change the rules and procedures of elections to effectuate partisan gain.
On Dec. 17, Pennsylvania's 20 electors had the privilege of casting their ballots for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. That selection followed a fair and free election that was spirited and involved significant debate about the future of our country. Our elections require a level playing field, and the recent cynical efforts to change Pennsylvania's manner of selecting electors should be categorically rejected. Let our voters decide future elections, not a handful of partisan politicians.
First Published December 30, 2012 12:00 am