Commentary: Allocating Pennsylvania’s Electoral Votes
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi plans to introduce legislation this month to change the way Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes are allocated in the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond. Pileggi has indicated his proposal would apportion electors based on the results of the statewide popular vote so that the candidate receiving a popular vote majority or plurality would receive a comparable share of electors. This would be a major departure from the winner-take-all system for awarding electors now in place in Pennsylvania and 47 other states.
The proportional division of electors and the current winner-take-all system share two fundamental flaws: Both would permit the loser of the national popular vote tally to “win” the election and take office as President; both also would push candidates to keep most of their attention focused on just a handful of states, denying voters elsewhere an opportunity to effectively participate in the election.
Common Cause believes that’s unacceptable.
This memo explores the Pileggi proposal and two alternatives being offered in debates over the future of the Electoral College in Pennsylvania and around the nation. It demonstrates that only one option, the National Popular Vote plan, would deliver real reform. Only this option will guarantee that the candidate chosen by the people in November is the President taking office in January and that all Americans have a voice in the election.
Proportional Allocation of Electors (the Pileggi plan): This system would divide electoral votes based on each candidate’s percentage of the popular vote. It appears to be fairer than the current system, but appearances are deceiving. In fact, proportional allocation would distort and perhaps even reverse the judgment voters render on Election Day. Like the current system, it would have elected George W. Bush in 2000, even though he finished about 500,000 votes behind Al Gore in the national popular vote tally.
The problem is part math, part physics. Because Pennsylvania has 20 electors, each candidate under the Pileggi plan would be entitled to 1 electoral vote for approximately every 5 percent of the popular vote received. Individual electoral votes can’t be divided however, so a candidate winning a 51-49 advantage in the popular vote would be forced into a 10-10 Electoral College tie.
In smaller states, things get even crazier. In New Hampshire, with just four electors, even a 60-40 split in the popular vote would produce a 2-2 electoral tie, a huge boost for the popular vote loser. Thirty-four of the 50 states have 10 electors or less. To gain even a 1 vote edge in the electoral tally in any of them, a candidate would have to score a popular vote landslide on Election Day. That reality would drive candidates to focus their attention on just a few, heavily populated states – think California, Texas, New York and Florida – where they could gain additional electors with relatively small increases in their party’s usual popular vote. Because California has 55 electors for example, each is equivalent to only 1.8 percent of the popular vote.
The other major problem with proportional allocation is partisan. The plan’s current supporters – all Republicans — are pushing it only in a few, selected states, where their party’s candidates have been unsuccessful in recent presidential elections. They want to retain the winner-take-all system in other states, creating an Electoral College hodge-podge that would tilt the election in their favor. Democrats, it should be noted, have flirted with similar schemes in the past.
In Pennsylvania, where President Obama outpolled Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points and more than 300,000 votes on Election Day, the Pileggi plan would have given Romney 9 of the state’s 20 electors. But in North Carolina, which is retaining the winner-take-all system, President Obama would walk away with none of the state’s 15 electors despite the fact that he came within 100,000 votes – less than 2 percent – of claiming a majority on Election Day.
Allocation by Congressional District: This system would award each candidate 1 elector for each Congressional District in which he or she won the most popular votes. Two at-large electors would be awarded to the statewide winner. This system is in use in two states, Maine and Nebraska, and of late has been or is being considered in several others (Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan) where Republicans controlling the statehouse have seen their presidential candidates repeatedly lose the statewide popular vote.
Their statehouse advantages allowed Republicans in those states to reshape Congressional districts in 2011 and ‘12 to benefit GOP candidates. Virginia Republicans, for example, now control 8 of the state’s 11 districts, each of which was carried last fall by Mitt Romney even as he ran 140,000 votes behind President Obama statewide. Allocation of Virginia’s 13 electors by district would have given Romney 8 votes to just 5 for Obama, reversing the judgment of the voters. In Pennsylvania, where Romney carried 13 of 18 districts while losing statewide by 310,000 votes, district allocation would have given him 13 of the state’s 20 electors. Had it been in place nationwide, district allocation would have made Romney President, with 276 electors, even though Obama outpolled him on Election Day by more than 5 million votes.
The obvious partisan considerations behind district allocation proposals in these states have driven several of the governors involved to back away. Sen. Pileggi reportedly was considering a district plan in Pennsylvania but apparently has abandoned it as too transparently partisan.
The National Popular Vote Compact: Eight states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 132 electoral votes, have adopted the National Popular Vote Compact. Under its terms, participating states agree that once states possessing a total of 270 electors – a majority – have signed on, all will cast their electoral votes for the candidate receiving a majority of the national popular vote, guaranteeing his or her election.
Under the national popular vote plan, votes cast in small states and large states, “red” states and “blue” states, would have equal value. The current incentive for candidates to focus on just a few “swing” states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia would disappear, making presidential campaigns truly national.
The U.S. Constitution gives state governments authority to decide how their electors will be allocated and permits them to enter into compacts with other states. There are legal questions over whether implementation of the National Popular Vote Compact also would require Congressional approval; a detailed study last year by George Mason University law professor Michael Brody concluded that the states could act on their own.
Most importantly, the compact is the only plan that ensures that the candidate chosen by “we the people” will be sworn in as President. As recently as 2000, the candidate finishing second on Election Day – George W. Bush – nevertheless gained an electoral vote majority and the presidency. Four years later, a switch of just 59,393 votes in Ohio would have delivered the state’s electors and the White House to John Kerry, with 271 electoral votes, even though Bush outpolled him nationally by more than 3 million.
The National Popular Vote Compact has been endorsed by more than 2,100 state legislators in both major parties. Hundreds of polls taken over the past 70 years across America indicate that about 70 percent of Americans believe our presidential elections should be decided by the outcome of the national popular vote.
For additional background on the National Popular Vote Compact, please see www.nationalpopularvote.com.