Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are pushing forward with a plan that would change that way the state awards its electoral votes for president and could have a significant impact on the 2012 presidential race.
The plan, which is backed by Gov. Tom Corbett (R), would scrap the state’s current winner-take-all method for awarding the state’s 20 electoral votes and dole them out depending on the result in each of the 18 congressional districts.
If passed, Pennsylvania would become the third state, along with Maine and Nebraska, to adopt that method, but unlike those two, its change could have a big impact given the size and swing(ish) nature of the state.
Democrats are already expressing fears that changing the winner-take-all system could cost them big in 2012 – most particularly if other states follow Pennsylvania’s lead.
Despite Pennsylvania having gone for the Democratic nominee for president in every election since 1988, Republicans currently control 12 of 19 of the state’s congressional districts and should be able to cement those 12 seats when the GOP-controlled state legislature redraws congressional districts in the coming month.
So, even if President Obama carries Pennsylvania in 2012, Republicans would likely win many of the state’s 20 electoral votes — and could give the GOP as many as 12 or 13 extra electoral votes.
Democrats are accusing the GOP of a blatant partisan power grab. And they fear Republicans could use their newfound political power to do the same thing in several other large states that have traditionally gone Democratic in presidential races, including Michigan and Wisconsin.
“This is a desecration of 224 years of history,” said Pennsylvania Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach. “This is all geared towards making sure a Democrat can never win another presidential election.”
The author of the bill, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, (R), said the bill is a rational effort to award the state’s votes according to how they are cast, and that the idea is catching on.
“It is moving much more quickly than I had anticipated when I announced my intention to produce the bill,” Pileggi said.
But while the plan is attracting high-profile GOP support, it’s not a slam dunk. And there are plenty of reasons it could face trouble.
Similar efforts have failed in the past. In 2004, for example, Colorado voters overwhelmingly defeated an amendment that would have awarded their state’s electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote.
One of the main reasons that such ideas are unpopular is that they make the state less relevant in the presidential race and give the candidates little incentive to visit.
Under a winner-take-all system, even a narrow win earns a candidate all 20 votes. So if the polls are close — as they often have been in Pennsylvania — the candidates will devote lots of time and attention to winning 100 percent of those votes.
Under the proposed plan, only a few congressional districts (and electoral votes) would be genuinely up-for-grabs, and national Republicans and Democrats may take their resources out of Pennsylvania.
That could make voters angry and lead to all kinds of unintended consequences further down the ballot, say critics of the idea.
“From a purely presidential point of view, I think that for the Republican Party it makes sense,” said David W. Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council. “As for downballot, I think there’s an argument to be made that they should be careful.”
Some of those downballot candidates, Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), are already expressing skepticism.
“I’m probably a little reluctant to be supportive of it … on political grounds,” Dent told the Allentown Morning-Call.
Some are also making the case that it could hurt Republicans in the presidential race. Despite Obama’s easy win in Pennsylvania three years ago, he is now broadly unpopular there, with 52 percent of Pennsylvanians saying he doesn’t deserve reelection in a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll.
If Republicans were to pass the new proposal and go on to win the state for the first time in 24 years, they would essentially be forfeiting electoral votes that would have otherwise gone to them under the current winner-take-all system.
“If Republicans think they have a chance of capturing Pennsylvania, then the prize is worth a lot less with this allocation rule,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine.
At the same time, others argue that if Republicans win a nominally blue state like Pennsylvania, it probably signals a larger national shift that would signal that they were on their way to winning the national race, with or without those extra electoral votes.
Either way, it could lead to a significant shift in votes, unlike in the other two states who use the method currently.
In Maine, it generally hasn’t had any effect, since Democrats routinely win both of its congressional districts. That has also generally been true of Republicans in Nebraska, even though Obama won an Omaha-based district in 2008 and took one of the state’s five electoral votes.
But just how significant the shift would be is up for debate. While there is much consternation over the potential shift of a dozen electoral votes to Republicans — a net swing of 24 votes if it were to occur — only three elections in U.S. history have been decided by that many votes.
If Michigan and Wisconsin joined that effort, it would likely add another dozen or so electoral votes to the GOP column, creating a net shift of 48 electoral votes — still well short of the margin of victory in the vast majority of presidential races.
Even as the popular vote is often very close in presidential elections, the Electoral College vote margin is generally much wider.
“You can have some pretty close elections,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall. “But the electoral vote is often out of proportion.”
(Correction: this post initially said that Nebraska has six electoral votes. It has five.)