My colleague David Waldman discussed this story earlier today, but it's a big enough deal that it really needs to get hit again. David's take focused on the hypocrisy of those who view the filibuster as sacrosanct but are ready to play games with the electoral college for rank partisan purposes. In this post, I'm going to take a look at what these latest Republican shenanigans would mean for our system of electing presidents. And man, I do not like the sound of this one bit:
A new proposal is pushing the often-forgotten Electoral College into the spotlight as Pennsylvania officials ponder the state's role in next year's presidential race.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is trying to gather support to change the state's "winner-takes-all" approach for awarding electoral votes. Instead, he's suggesting that Pennsylvania dole them out based on which candidate wins each of the 18 congressional districts, with the final two going to the contender with the most votes statewide.
So far, the idea has received support from colleagues of the Delaware County Republican in the state House and from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. But Democrats, who have carried the state in presidential contests since 1992, said the shift would erode Pennsylvania's clout.
Put simply, awarding electoral votes by congressional district would be a disaster for Democrats. Democratic voters tend to be much more concentrated in urban areas while Republican voters are typically more spread out. That means that the average blue seat is much bluer than the average red seat is red, which in turn means that there are more Republican-leaning districts than Democratic-inclined CDs.
Here's one stark illustration. John McCain's best district in the nation was TX-13, which occupies the Texas panhandle. He won there by 77-23, a 54 percent margin. By contrast, there were 39 districts that Barack Obama won by an equal or bigger spread, all the way up to his 90-point victory in New York's 16th Congressional District in the South Bronx.
More concretely, if Pennsylvania's proposed system were in place nationwide, Obama's 365-173 electoral college romp would have been a much tighter 301-237 win. Meanwhile, George W. Bush's narrow 286-251 victory over John Kerry would have turned into a 317-221 blowout. And just as bad, Bush's razor-thin 271-266 margin over Al Gore would have been a more comfortable 288-250 spread for Dubya, making Gore's "loss" despite winning the national popular vote even more galling.
Republicans haven't won Pennsylvania, a blue-tilting state, since 1988, so this move makes cold political sense for them, now that they control both the legislature and the governor's mansion. Indeed, in 2008, Barack Obama won the state by 10 points but actually lost a majority of PA's congressional districts; thanks to denser Democratic living patterns noted above, plus a Republican gerrymander, John McCain won 10 of the state's 19 CDs. With the GOP poised to install an even more favorable congressional map thanks to redistricting, this calculus only tilts further in their favor.
While in theory this proposal could "backfire" if the Republican nominee were to win an outright majority of the popular vote in Pennsylvania, it almost certainly wouldn't matter at that point, since it's hard to imagine Obama winning reelection if he doesn't capture the Keystone State. Therefore, it's almost certainly in the GOP's interest to pursue this plan. Republicans could also move forward with similar proposals in Michigan and Wisconsin, two more sizable blue/blue-ish states where they also control all the levers of power. (Conceivably Florida and Ohio could be on the table as well, but I suspect most Republican paths to the White House require outright GOP victory in both of those states.)
In my view, the electoral college is already bad enough for a whole host of reasons. The congressional district method, though, makes an unfair system even less fair. And it's bad whether just Pennsylvania adopts this plan, or even if the entire nation were to use it. (Two small states already employ the CD system, Maine and Nebraska, but until Obama's unlikely victory in NE-02 in 2008, they'd never split their EVs.)
I think the only way to fight back is to push for the national popular vote, something which can be achieved via an interstate compact between states. The states in the compact would all award their EVs to the winner of the national vote, but the law would only take effect once enough states signed on (i.e., states with 270 electoral votes between them). Several states have already signed on (including big boppers like California and Illinois), and this way, no constitutional amendment is necessary.
If the GOP presses forward with their Pennsylvania plan, we'll have to respond somehow, and I think the national popular vote is the best plan. The only good news right now is that Republican congressmen in vulnerable districts in PA are reluctant to support the CD system, since they'd risk a full-bore Democratic presidential campaign trying to turn out votes in each of their districts, rather than the state as a whole. Some other Republicans think they can win Pennsylvania outright next year and feel that this legislation would constitute throwing in the towel. So we may get lucky and the GOP may decide not to go through with this. But we need to stay very much on guard, even if there is not much we can do in the short term to thwart this.