How to Stop Pennsylvania from Mattering
by E.C. Gach
I wrote recently about the difficulties associated with our anachronistic political institutions. The Constitution, and the division of powers between states and the federal government it lays out, while created by insightful and wise statesmen, is ultimately still the product of a special time and place, far removed from the nation’s present circumstance.
This week, one political party shows how damning these political artifacts can be when their perversion threatens democracy.
In Pennsylvania where I live, members of the state legislature are considering a change to how the keystone state awards its electoral votes.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
“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.”
Currently, Republicans control both houses in the legislature as well as the Governor’s office, leaving state Democrats with no real means of preventing such a proposal from becoming law. Trying to spin it as anything other than a hyper-partisan move, Pileggi’s argues:
“The system we have now, is a winner-take-all system, the system I am proposing would more precisely conform the electoral college to the popular vote and it would make the presidential election more relevant across the state, give voters more of a sense that they are active participants in the presidential election.”
But, as David Weigel explains, the outcome would be anything but impartial:
“So, let’s pretend this is a totally political neutral decision. If the next Republican candidate breaks the streak and wins the state, it would be horrible for him — he’d shed electoral votes. But if the president wins, he’s down at least nine, possibly ten electoral votes, because congressional districting is slanted towards the GOP.”
This may seem like a fair split. If nearly half of the state prefers one candidate to another, why shouldn’t that disagreement be allowed to come out in the electoral math?
Except that under the new system that still wouldn’t happen. By most accounts, President Obama, or any other Democratic presidential contender, would receive fewer electoral votes than their Republican counterpart despite receiving more popular support:
“Let’s say Obama carries Pennsylvania narrowly, but loses 11 congressional districts. In that scenario, the winner of the Pennsylvania popular vote takes nine EVs; the loser takes 11 EVs. How’s that reform look to you?”
Unfortunately, each state is constitutionally allowed to decide on its electoral regime however it chooses. Matthew Yglesias delivers the day’s civic lesson:
“It’s worth noting, however, that under the U.S. Constitution, the discretion of state legislatures in allocating electoral votes is absolute. There’s no requirement that Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, or any of these other states hold any form of election. They could pass a law tomorrow saying delegating the selection of electors to Reince Priebus. This slightly addled constitutional provision has just been lurking around like a time bomb for over 100 years waiting for someone to push the envelop.”
And according to Kevin Drum, that someone(s) has arrived:
“But here’s what really so disheartening about the whole thing. As recently as a couple of decades ago this would have been a bridge too far for most of the party’s mandarins: conservative pundits and senior GOP officials would have sounded off against it because it was just too raw a deal even for flinty political pros. But now we live in the era of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and Tom DeLay and Fox News. There’s really no one left who might object to this merely out of a decent respect for institutional integrity and fairmindedness.”
Drum is exactly right. Institutional integrity and fairmindedness are the two principles that threaten to be shoved aside with the introduction of a proportional system. Contrary to Pileggi’s claim that, “what we do right now does not reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania,” the current winner-take-all system is the most fair that can be achieved under the current strictures of the greater Electoral College.
Granting electoral votes according to district wide results does nothing but shift the winner-take-all mentality to a smaller scale. So while individual districts can make their voice heard, individual voters will have their electoral voice silenced because of Pennsylvania’s unique geography and demographic distribution. Its two main population centers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are wellsprings of Democratic turnout. Philadelphia in particular, has a large African-American population that would become under-represented under the new rules. On the other hand, mostly white suburbs and rural towns would be represented above what their population size would normally dictate.
And implicit in Pileggi’s argument of course, is that massive urban populations don’t represent the interests of Real Americans, so even if they make up the greater part of Pennsylvania’s population, their current electoral weight is undue and illegitimate. This sentiment is echoed by Jim Geraghty at NRO, who sympathizes with disenfranchised Republicans:
“But most of these states have a simple political geography: vast swaths of Republican-leaning rural and sometimes suburban districts balanced by, and sometimes outweighted, by densely-packed, deeply Democratic urban districts. It’s not surprising that frustrated Republicans would tire of seeing their votes rendered moot by high (some would argue suspiciously high) turnout in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, etc. often gives Democrats the edge in these key states.”
Now if every state in the country were to approve a similar system, the outcome would be more equitable. But as things stand, shifting the rules would not only degrade the urban electorate, it would also undermine Pennsylvania’s privileged status as a major swing state. Rather than make it a required stop for every major presidential candidate, a proportional system would shift focus to a few close districts, if even that. After all, if most of the other states are still operating according to winner-take-all rules, what real difference could one or two electoral votes make? Why campaign in Delaware County when a similar amount of time spent in Ohio or Florida could deliver more than ten times the electoral votes?
Then there’s the problem of institutional integrity. The Electoral Collage is antiquated and no longer suits the needs of the country. However, unless we decide to abolish it outright, deviating from it half-heartedly only further distorts elections. But arbitrarily predicating electoral votes, an expression of state sovereignty, on Congressional districts, a form of federal representation, leaves the overall outcome muddled in contradiction. While almost every other state adheres to expressing its popular support for candidates unanimously, Pennsylvania will be abdicating its significance through electoral balkanization. Instead of preserving the power of its majoritarian consensus, PA will become a confederacy of gerrymandered districts.
The solution is to do away with electoral votes all together, and have the laws governing election to the Presidency, which represents the nation, by the level of government that reflects the nation, rather than the partisan tides of individual states. “One man one vote” isn’t possible in the system of winner-take-all district-wide races. And yet those are exactly the kind of anti-democratic reforms that Pennsylvania Republicans are proposing.