A debate over Electoral College procedure has a way of bringing out hard-core political nerdy-ness and partisan rancor.
The nerdy rancor is roiling in two state legislatures: Pennsylvania, a well-known battleground state, and Nebraska, which swings Republican.
In Nebraska, Republican lawmakers are pushing to go back in history to when a winner-take-all method awarded all the state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who claimed the statewide popular vote.
Right now, Nebraska splits its electoral votes–meaning, it doles out one electoral vote for each congressional district won by a presidential candidate.
In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers are calling for the opposite.
Leaders in the General Assembly want to shift to the congressional district method, splitting up 18 of the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes according to which candidate wins each district.
So, the prize for winning the statewide popular vote would shrink from 20 to two.
And Pennsylvania, which has given all its electoral votes to the Democratic ticket since 1988, would suddenly find its electoral prize split roughly in half.
The thinking goes that the Democratic majority concentrated in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs would be diluted and Republican votes in rural regions would gain importance.
“If you’re a Republican in the state of Pennsylvania, you have to be very frustrated,” said Michael Federici, a political science professor at Mercyhurst College in Erie. “Over the last few election cycles, the popular vote has been relatively close. But your vote, in one sense, doesn’t get counted because no electoral votes go to your candidate.”
He says for these voters, the plan offers some consolation. At least their candidate will get something out of the Electoral College system.
“A Democrat, of course, might think exactly the opposite way, that their vote would count less because the state’s been trending Democrat,” said Federici.
Votes tied to ‘gerrymandered monstrosities’
Partisan concerns loomed large at a recent hearing in Harrisburg on the measure, which is backed by the Republican leaders in the General Assembly, as well as Gov. Tom Corbett.
Christopher Borick, a political scientist from Muhlenberg College in Bethlehem, testified the proposal ties the presidential vote to congressional districts that he called “gerrymandered monstrosities.”
He said the reform would intensify partisan pressure on the once-a-decade redistricting process–which happens to be under way in the Legislature.
“The desire to lock up electoral votes for political parties before the election ever takes place is quite an attraction and undoubtedly would play a role in the decisions on the shape of the state’s congressional districts,” said Borick.
But Luke Bernstein, from the Office of the Governor, said the plan is all about protecting the integrity and weight of an individual’s vote.
“The reality is, whether or not you want to admit it, the operation of a winner-take-all system results in effective massive disenfranchisement of voters who support losing candidates,” said Bernstein.
Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, says the plan, first put forth by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, doesn’t solve that problem.
“You’re still going to have losers,” she said. “The votes in congressional districts for those, who are, that are cast for candidates that don’t win the popular vote in that district still is discounted.”
Federici says there’s reason to be skeptical of efforts to tinker with the electoral votes in Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
A matter of principle, say governor’s office
“I think Republicans in Nebraska, who are the dominant party there, are saying, ‘We don’t want to split our vote, we want Republicans to get all the votes, so let’s go to the winner-take-all-system.'” said Federici. “That’s, in part, why I say politics is really what’s behind all of these plans.”
Bernstein, from the governor’s office, said it’s all principle in Pennsylvania.
“If a Democrat is accusing supporters of this bill of a partisan power grab, what do they call it in Nebraska, where they are fighting to retain the congressional district method,” he said.
The Senate State Government Committee now must vote on whether to advance the Pileggi electoral plan to the full Senate.
Both parties will be watching what happens in Pennsylvania–in order to determine how to shape their candidates’ strategies and whether the commonwealth will remain a battleground state.