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Pennsylvania Senate Leader Pileggi Wrong on Prescription for Electoral College Reform

by Rob Richie // Published December 3, 2012
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Hot off the presses from Bloomberg News is a major Electoral College development. Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi has circulated a letter to his legislative colleagues seeking support for a bill to replace the winner-take-all allocation of his state's Electoral College votes with one based on proportional representation - with two electoral votes going to the winner of the state and 18 votes allocated proportionally.

The proposal is sure to trigger an intense partisan reaction. Pennsylvania Republicans often come close in  presidential elections, but last won an electoral vote in 1988 when George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis. Yet if Sen. Pileggi's plan had been in place this year, President Barack Obama's 5.4% win in the statewide popular vote would have translated into his earning 12 electoral votes rather than 20, while Gov. Mitt Romney  would have won eight electoral votes rather than zero. Shifting eight electoral votes in Pennsylvania would have provided a bigger boost to Romney than switching the outcome in Iowa.

FairVote took a position against this change in October 2011, when we were invited to submit testimony to a Pennsylvania state legislative committee that was examing Sen. Pileggi's then-proposal to divide electoral votes by congressional district. In my testimony, I compared the state's winner-take-all Electoral College allocation rules to congressional district allocation, proportional allocation and the national popular vote plan. I drew on our important report looking at how district allocation and proportional allocation might work nationwide, Fuzzy Math: Wrongway Reforms for Allocating Electoral Votes.

Sen. Pileggi's shift to advocating proportional allocation may be designed to maintain calm among the state's Republican House Members. When the district plan was proposed in 2011, several publicly opposed the plan, apparently worried that intense activity in some districts to swing an electoral vote might put them at risk. Whether that fear was justified, it's certainly true that going to proportional allocation would almost certainly eliminate any concentrated political activity in the state. It's an expensive, big state in which to campaign when at most three electoral votes might be in play.

Count me as a major skeptic of the wisdom of states taking unilateral action to divide electoral votes, particularly when the motivation for the action can so easily be ascribed to partisanship. But I wanted to indicate support for the sentiment behind Sen. Pileggi's statement to Bloomberg News, if not the associated policy proposal: “Anyone who voted for Governor Romney -and many Pennsylvanians did -does not have any reflection of that vote in the electoral college vote. This is a proposal that is not party specific or partisan in any way, but just an attempt to have the popular vote reflected in the electoral college vote.”

Students of FairVote's reform proposals would know that we strongly support replacing winner-take-all voting rules for Congress and state legislative elections for exactly this same vision of fair representation. Congress and state legislatures are representative bodies where we believe having more people earn a seat at the table is a pre-condition of having a fully representative democracy. Indeed, the fact that Pennsylvania's U.S. House delegation next year will be 13 Republicans to five Democrats is an example of unfair disproportionality -- as is the more general silencing of less partisan, centrist voices and the near total marginalization of third party perspectives.

For president, however, I strongly support a national popular vote and call on Sen. Pileggi to amend his proposal in two ways:

  • First, to support Pennsylvania's entry into the National Popular Vote interstate agreement to ensure Pennsylvania voters can participate meaningfully in every presidential election and to uphold the sensible goal of election of the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC;
  • Second, to apply his interest in representing voters fairly to replacing winner-take-all rules for state legislative elections and calling on Congress to give Pennsylvania back the right it had before 1967 to use proportional voting for Congress, as explained in our Fair Voting 2012 report.

Proportional allocation of electoral votes: My former colleague Neal Suidan wrote a 2011 blogpost about proportional allocation of electoral college votes. States would award their electoral votes to candidates based on their statewide vote share to the nearest whole electoral vote. For example, suppose a state has ten electoral votes and one candidate earned 60% of the popular vote to another candidate's 40%. The candidate with 60% would receive six electoral votes and the other four. That same 6-4 division of electoral votes would also be earned with statewide outcomes that ranged from 56% to 44% up to 64% to 36% - meaning that candidates would earn the same 6-4 split in electoral votes if the margin were as large as 28% or as small as 12%.

While we back forms of proportional representation for legislative elections (see our proposal for modest forms of proportional voting for all states at our FairVoting.US report) and for allocation of convention delegates in presidential primaries, it's highly problematic when states try to use it to allocate electoral votes. 

One problem is that, as in the example of the state with ten electoral votes, rounding off electoral votes to the closest whole number would marginalize a significant number of voters. Many states in fact would not have any electoral votes realistically in play, while nearly all states would never have more than one electoral vote in play. As a result, many voters would be absolutely ignored.

A second problem is that states do not have the same number of  voters per electoral vote.  Wyoming residents, for example, have one electoral vote for about every 190,000 residents, which is about a quarter of the number of residents per electoral vote in Texas. As a result, even if every state were to divide electoral votes proportionally, the national popular vote winner could still lose. 

A third problem is how to handle third party and independent votes. We ultimately hope to see majority voting systems like instant runoff voting for our single winner elections and believe third parties should have a fair chance to win seats in legislatures. But the presidency is a single winner office. Having a "representative" Electoral College assumes that it is a deliberative body that should be, well, representative. But under our Constitution, if no candidate wins an absolute majority of electoral votes, Congress picks the winner with incredibly bizarre rules - hardly a fair outcome.

A fourth problem relates to the specific case of just one state dividing electoral votes. For Pennsylvania specifically, it would mean that the state would go from being a likely battleground in the 2016 elections to being marginalized and ignored by campaigns. Even though Pennsylvania has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1988 and even though it was relatively overlooked this year (without a single post-convention visit from either Barack Obama or his running mate Joe Biden), its statewide popular vote share was one of the closest to the national popular vote share -- an outcome that indicates that if there had been a 50%-50% tie in the national popular vote , the Pennsylvana result  would have been nearly dead even as well. Under Pileggi's plan, that 50-50 partisanship would become almost irrelevant, as no more than three electoral votes would likely be at stake in the state. 

In the national context, trying to unilaterally divide electoral votes in a large state that tends to break toward one party has a transparent political impact. No matter what Sen. Pileggi's motivations may be - and I have no doubt that many Pennsylvania Republicans have been frustrated to come up empty-handed year after year in the state's presidential elections - his proposal inescapably will be debated as a partisan powergrab.

Presidential elections need fixing and, under our Constitution, states indeed are the ones that are supposed to do it. But their roadmap should be the National Popular Vote plan, not misguided efforts such as this one. The National Popular Vote plan makes every vote equal, guarantees election of the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and requires candidates to reflect the needs of all Americans and to campaign in all corners of the country. It represents the way forward for a fair election in 2016.