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Commentary: Allocating Pennsylvania’s Electoral Votes

PileggiSenate 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[1] and permits them to enter into compacts with other states.[2] 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.[3]

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

16 Responses

  1. I have to laugh upon reading the comments here from the previous election. The GOP wants to change the electoral college because they can’t win a national election? The GOP doesn’t want to accept the results? Seems the shoe is on the other foot now and the DNC is whining! For a long time, I wanted the electoral college abolished and popular vote put in place. No longer! After seeing the electoral map during the past election, I do NOT want the lower half of California and a couple of eastern seaboard states deciding who is President and who is not! NOW that would be disenfranchisement!!!

  2. What some here fail to realize is that the popular vote count is not yet in. They are making assumptions based upon the misconception that it the vote count is final. Most states have not yet counted absentee ballots. Historically Republicans win that count 2 to 1. if that holds true for the 4 million uncounted absentee ballots, Trump will win the popular vote.
    And HRC was shown to be supporting Voter Fraud as revealed by Wikileaks and Project Veritas. Just because CNN and MS-DNC didn’t cover it doesn’t make it untrue – they just won’t report bad news for Dems. So I don’t want to hear the false narrative about Voter Suppression when Voter Integrity is really what is at stake.

  3. I am a life long Pennsylvanian and I can say that I haven’t the faintest idea what party Mr. Peleggi represents but, he seems to imply that he is unhappy with the outcome of the national election. His ideas as to how the state allocates its electorial votes is capricious, to say the least. Whether it’s the states or the national electorial college, the system is designed to give a fair voice to the rural, less populated areas. Which, thankfully, Pennsylvania has a lot of. If it were not for the state’s system, and we went to say, majority vote take all, Allegheny and Philadelphia counties would “rule” our state’s vote for the simple fact of population. The same would be true on the national level. New York, Chicago, Los Angelos, etc. would be picking our President all the time.

  4. Dec 19 State Electors can flip their vote to HRC! This is the purpose of the Electoral College. To change vote when a unfit/dangerous candidate is elected. HRC will win popular vote. Voter suppression, narrowing voting rights, and indictment LIES spun about the Comey letter, proved false, changed or kept votes from being cast. Tell your Electors to cast for Clinton. Every day Trump shows how unfit he is, and how much worse for the Country/World he will be. Constitutional Failsafe! Tell your friends, contact your Electors. Not too late to save Country from avoidable hardships and civil drama!

  5. The Electoral College is outmoded. It was established to protect the interest of wealthy white men. It’s time to get rid of it and hear the voice of the people.

  6. Michael, I agree. We have the technology to have “1 person, 1 vote” elections. This being the popular vote. Maybe more people would vote, if they felt they were heard!

  7. It is 2016, not 1887. We have technology and communications systems which make it possible, practical and most importantly reasonable to do away with all of the politics of the Electoral College, and actually have the reality of one person – one vote. We need to amend the constitution to mandate a pure democratic election where the total number of votes (not popular votes), but votes carry the election even if it is a statistically small margin of victory.
    Perhaps it would be prudent to maintain some form of the electoral college in the event of damage to the national infrastructure because of war or natural disasters, returning to the one person – one vote system once the war damage or natural disaster has passed.

  8. This is totally unacceptable..GOP trying to change things because they can’t win !!! TOTALLY RIGGED !!!! TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE !!!!!

  9. This is UNACCEPTABLE…all of a sudden you want to change things around because GOP can’t win.. TOTALLY RIGGED !!!!!! TOTAL INJUSTICE !!!!!

  10. Basing the electoral vote on Congressional Districts, while better than the current system, is not a very good plan and just takes a lot of the flaws of the winner-take-all statewide system to a winner-take-all CD system.
    The National Compact would be great because it would cover much of the nation and it would in effect turn make electing President a national popular election while still limiting the scope of any recount challenges to particular states, but I wonder at what point in future time, if any, the compact will actually be realized.
    We have an opportunity now in PA to fix our own state, and we can’t be responsible for what other states do. So why not fix our own state while we have the opportunity? Yes, adopting the Pileggi proportional electors plan could cause candidates to win the election who do not have a plurality of the popular vote, but it wouldn’t be any worse than the current system in that regard. Meanwhile within PA this new proposal would be far more democratic than the current system which basically

  11. And so what do you do if the margin of victory in the popular vote is 3 votes … No, wait, a miscount in New Hampshire, make that 7 votes … no, wait, a miscount in Florida, now it’s 5 votes….
    Mess. BIG mess. Re-election? Runoff? What if the second election margin is 2 votes? Huh, huh?

  12. If a team loses a football game 20-10 we don’t say they won 1/3 of the game but that is what Pileggi wants to do. He wants to “cheat” because the Republicans can’t win national elections fairly.

  13. This is stupid and only feeds into the democratic talking points of voter supression and disenfranchisement.

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