Electoral college reform and tilting the presidential balance

George F. Will
Opinion Writer October 7, 2011

Republicans supposedly revere the Constitution, but in its birthplace, Pennsylvania, they are contemplating a subversion of the Framers’ institutional architecture. Their ploy — partisanship masquerading as altruism about making presidential elections more “democratic” — will weaken resistance to an even worse change being suggested.

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature may pass, and the Republican governor promises to sign, legislation ending the state’s practice — shared by 47 other states — of allocating all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. Pennsylvania would join Maine and Nebraska in allocating one vote to the winner in each congressional district, with the two remaining votes going to the statewide popular vote winner.

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. He is also a contributor to FOX News’ daytime and primetime programming. View Archive

The 2012 Republican candidate might lose the statewide vote but carry, say, nine of the 18 congressional districts, cutting President Obama’s yield to 11 electoral votes. But if the Republican candidate carries nine of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts and the statewide vote — Obama’s Pennsylvania poll numbers are poor — Republicans will have cost themselves nine electoral votes, which would be condign punishment.

Not since 1988 has a Republican carried Pennsylvania, a state described as Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in between. Incongruous political cultures coexist in many states, so the temptation to which Pennsylvania Republicans may succumb could become a national contagion. Many big blue states (e.g., New York, Illinois, California) have many red enclaves: Democrats, particularly minorities and government employees, are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas. And many reliably red states (e.g. Texas, Georgia) have solidly blue congressional districts.

In 1960, when Richard Nixon lost the popular vote to John Kennedy by 0.2 percent and the electoral vote 303 to 219, he won 227 districts and 26 states, so under Pennsylvania’s plan he would have won the presidency with 279 electoral votes. In 1976, Gerald Ford carried 215 districts and 27 states; Jimmy Carter carried 221 districts and 23 states and Washington, D.C. Under Pennsylvania’s plan (and assuming no “faithless electors”), there would have been a 269-to-269 electoral vote tie, and the House of Representatives would have picked the winner.

Pennsylvania’s plan would encourage third parties to cherry-pick particular districts, periodically producing “winners” with only national pluralities of electoral votes, leaving the House to pick presidents. The existing system handicaps third parties: In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.

Pennsylvania’s proposal would raise the stakes of gerrymandering. And a swing state such as Colorado would often be neglected: Its nine electoral votes are a pot worth competing for, but under Pennsylvania’s plan, the split might usually be 5-to-4 or 6-to-3.

Winner-take-all allocation of states’ electoral votes enhances presidential legitimacy by magnifying narrow popular vote margins. In 1960, Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote but 56.4 percent of the electoral vote (303 to 219). In 2008, Obama won just 52.9 percent of the popular vote but 67.8 percent of the electoral vote (365 to 173).

Now eight states and the District of Columbia, with 132 electoral votes, are pursuing an even worse idea than Pennsylvania’s. They have agreed to a compact requiring their electoral votes to be cast for the national popular vote winner, even if he loses their popular vote contests. This compact would come into effect when the states agreeing to it have a decisive 270 electoral votes.

Deep-blue California supports the compact. But if it had existed in 2004, the state’s electoral votes would have gone to George W. Bush, even though 1.2 million more Californians favored John Kerry.

Supporters of the compact say they favor direct popular election of presidents. But that exists — within each state. The Framers, not being simple, did not subordinate all values to simple majority rule. The electoral vote system shapes the character of presidential majorities, making it unlikely they will be geographically or ideologically narrow. The Framers wanted rule by certain kinds of majorities — ones suited to moderate, consensual governance of a heterogeneous, continental nation with myriad regional and other diversities.

Such majorities do not materialize spontaneously. They are built by a two-party system’s candidates who are compelled to cater to entire states and to create coalitions of states. Today’s electoral vote system provides incentives for parties to alter the attributes that make them uncompetitive in important states. It shapes the nation’s regime and hence the national character. The electoral college today functions differently than the Founders envisioned — they did not anticipate political parties — but it does buttress the values encouraged by the federalism the Framers favored, which Pennsylvanians, and others, should respect.

georgewill@washpost.com

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