College Prank

Why Pennsylvania’s plan to reform the Electoral College is doomed.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett

Dominic Pileggi is the most hated man in liberal America. This puzzles him. The majority leader of the Pennsylvania State Senate plans to introduce a bill that would split up the state’s 20 electoral votes, apportioning them by congressional district instead of awarding them all to the winner of the popular vote. Democrats see a partisan motive: If the plan had been in effect in 2008, Barack Obama would have won only 11 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes instead of all 21.

Pileggi sees it differently. “I’m getting more complaints from Republicans!” he says. “Some Republicans believe 2012 is going to be the year we win the popular vote in Pennsylvania again.” He is thinking only of the commonwealth. “This would be good for Pennsylvania,” Pileggi says. “The results would reflect which candidate won the popular vote. Is there a better way to closely conform the electoral vote to the popular vote? I’m open to suggestions.”

We should pause for a moment, because redistricting plans and Electoral College reform plans are a fertile pasture of spin and cant. Where did this idea come from? In Pennsylvania, it came from a little-known pressure group that spent $75,000 to bend the ears of Republican operatives. That’s sort of how similar plans have come up in other states—Colorado in 2004, California in 2007.

Why is Pileggi’s idea so terrifying to Democrats? Those doomed Colorado and California plans were ballot initiatives. In 2004, the Democratic-aligned strategists behind the plan to split the state’s electoral votes lost by a 2-to-1 margin. (The main group opposing the initiative was evocatively called Coloradans Against a Stupid Idea.) In 2007, Democrats branded a Republican-aligned vote-split plan as the “dirty tricks initiative.” In a bad year for the GOP, the money dried up; the initiative never made the ballot.

There are no such Republican problems in Pennsylvania. Pileggi’s Republicans control the state legislature and the governor’s office. Democrats who want to stop this must place their hopes in other Republicans—like the state chairman, Rob Gleason—who oppose this for picayune local political reasons, or are willing to bet it all on Republicans winning the state for the first time since they crushed Dukakis. If Democrats find six Republican to oppose it in the Senate, or 11 in the House, they can stop it. Otherwise, it’s splitsville.

In the meantime, what’s wrong with the idea? There are two people who can best answer the question. One of them, sadly, is dead.

In 1800, when some states actually divvied up their electoral votes like this, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe with his thoughts about the relative fairness of vote-split plans:

All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general, but while ten States choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly and worse than folly for the other six not to do it. In these ten States the minority is certainly unrepresented, and their majorities not only have the weight of their whole State in their scale, but have the benefit of so much of our minorities as can succeed at a district election. This is, in fact, ensuring to our minorities the appointment of the government.

Jefferson didn’t hate the idea of assigning electoral votes by district. “To state it in another form,” he wrote, “it is merely a question whether we will divide the United States into sixteen or one hundred and thirty-seven districts. The latter being more chequered, and representing the people in smaller sections, would be more likely to be an exact representation of their diversified sentiments.” The problem: If every state didn’t divide its votes this way, the system would be a mess, random and unfair. “Representation of a part by great, and part by small sections, would give a result very different from what would be the sentiment of the whole people of the United States, were they assembled together.”

I read some of this back to Pileggi, asking why he didn’t back something like the National Popular Vote campaign, which would hold off on Electoral College reform until every state agreed to do it. “There is a proposal like that in the Senate,” he says, “but it has not gotten much traction. This is about Pennsylvania, and I think this is an idea that works within the Electoral College system we have right now.”

Back to Jefferson. He gave Monroe that advice when the franchise was limited to white men. The Founders didn’t anticipate the problems that make modern congressional districts such horrible vehicles for divvying up electorate votes. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, minority voters, who largely go for Democrats, are packed into heavily Democratic districts.

Take a look at Florida, a swing state that voted for Obama in 2008. He won 52 percent of the vote, but only 10 of the state’s 25 districts. Had the Republican-run legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist rammed through a vote-split plan—and they easily could have—McCain would have been rejected by the voters of Florida, then grabbed 15 of their 27 electoral votes.

Thus the full-scale Democratic freak-out about the Pileggi plan. Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin are all run by Republicans, Democrats point out, who could ram these plans through if they wanted. So far, none of them have made any moves toward doing so. But if every state had implemented the Pileggi plan in 2008, Obama would have won 307 electoral votes instead of 365.

One of Obama’s electoral votes was the product of a vote-split plan: Nebraska’s. Since 1996, the state has awarded two votes to the winner of the state, and one vote for each district he won. (Nebraska has three congressional districts.) In 2008, for the first time, a candidate took advantage of the plan, and Obama picked up the vote from Nebraska’s second district, which is centered in Omaha. By pure coincidence, Nebraska’s Republican legislature has a bill, ready for debate next year, that would change the state back to a winner-take-all plan. Its sponsor, Republican Beau McCoy, is the other person with the best perspective on Electoral College splits. He doesn’t like them.

“What we found in Nebraska is that our redistricting processes have become extremely contentious,” says McCoy. “I believe that the culprit is the hyperpartisan nature of trying to change and morph congressional districts with the Electoral College in mind. If we had winner-take-all, there’d be a lot less contention.”

The argument for keeping the vote-split is that there wouldn’t be any reason for candidates to campaign in Nebraska without it. McCoy is unconvinced by this.

“They may come to campaign to Nebraska’s 2nd district,” he says, “but that comes at the detriment of the rest of our state. We’ve got a population of 1.7 million, with 700,000 in Omaha, and then there’s the vast majority of state that neither party campaigns in.”

Behold, Pennsylvania: This is your future. Change the Electoral College system, and you get a partisan backlash. You get unintended consequences. You end up trying to fix the plan with arguments that make as much sense as the Electoral College does—not that much at all.