Thinking outside the box

    Have you heard about the Republican plan being hatched in Harrisburg to change the way Pennsylvania allots its electoral votes, a plan that would award some EVs to the GOP even if the Democrats sustain their Keystone State victory streak in 2012?Love them or hate them, you have to give props for cleverness to the Pennsylvania Republican powers. Under the traditional process in Pennsylvania and 47 other states, the presidential candidate who wins statewide is thereby awarded all the electoral votes. But, as Gov. Tom Corbett and the top players in the Republican-run legislature well know, the Democratic candidate has run the table in Pennsylvania in every election since 1992. So rather than play by the old rules again, the state’s Republican leaders want to change the rules – by scrapping the winner-take-all system, and substituting the Maine-Nebraska model, in which each the EVs are awarded in accordance with the voting results in each congressional district.Translation: If President Obama was to win the state next year under the traditional system, he’d take all 20 electoral votes. But under the proposed new system (which top Harrisburg Republicans will craft in a bill that Corbett says he’d sign), Obama would take a major hit. Since roughly half of the 2012 congressional districts (with boundaries newly drawn by Harrisburg Republicans) are disproportionately rural, and since a few others are Republican-friendly (12 of the 18 districts will be represented by GOP House members), Obama could actually win the statewide vote and wind up with fewer EVs than the Republican loser…even if, as before, two EVs (one for each U.S. senator) automatically go to the statewide winner.All told, the GOP might be able to neutralize the Democrats’ one-million voter registration advantage in the nation’s sixth most populous state – and perhaps tilt a very close national election to the Republican candidate. This is brilliant power politicking.Some Democrats are complaining about an attempted “power grab,” and a Yale law professor told the liberal Mother Jones website the other day that “this is not American fair play, it’s a partisan steamroller.” But it happens to be perfectly legal. The Founders basically signaled that the states can distribute their EVs however they see fit (Article II: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors”). Granted, no large state has ever seriously sought to game the system this way, but, lest we forget, contemporary Republicans know how to think outside the box. To borrow the line popularized by writer Tom Wolfe, they push the edge of the envelope.But there’s no guarantee that Pennsylvania Republicans will actually follow through with this power play. They may well balk at the moment of truth, mindful of the law of unintended consequences. For instance, if EVs are allotted by congressional districts, that would prompt Democrats to ramp up their turnout efforts in districts they typically ignore. Some House GOP incumbents are already concerned about that prospect.In other words, reforms can sometimes threaten to hurt the reformers. Democrats who are currently freaked by the Pennsylvania scenario (and fear it could spread to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, where Republicans also have gubernatorial and legislative control), are actually well acquainted with the blowback theory. Seven years ago, they supported a Colorado ballot initiative, financed by a rich donor, that would have allotted the state’s nine EVs by congressional district. But when it became clear, in that autumn of 2004, that John Kerry had a fighting chance to win Colorado, they suddenly decided that it was a fine idea to stick with the winner-take-all tradition, and that the ballot measure should lose. Which it did.So Pennsylvania Republicans might ultimately tilt toward the status quo – having recalculated the political odds. Yes, they’ve lost Pennsylvania in five successive elections, but this is not Massachusetts. They did win the state three times during the 1980s. And given Obama’s dismal poll ratings statewide, maybe the Republican candidate (especially Mitt Romney) has a decent shot at winning Pennsylvania in 2012. If so, why not stick with the system that would give him all 20 electoral votes – instead of giving Obama the EVs from the urban congressional districts?But here’s a better idea. Rather than suffer all these attempted partisan tweaks of the creaky, quirky, Rube Goldberg-designed Electoral College, why not just get rid of it and elect our leader by popular vote, the way it’s done in most of the western world? Life would be so much simpler.——-In my Thursday newspaper column, I pose a question: When are Republicans going to learn that rhetorically attacking Social Security is the political equivalent of nitroglycerin?——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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