Are Pennsylvania Republicans Manipulating the Electoral College?

Some Pennsylvania Republicans are hoping to change the way that the state allocates its presidential electors. Rather than a winner-take-all system of elector allocation, they would prefer to award electors by congressional district. This system would have given Mitt Romney 13 electoral votes from Pennsylvania. Barack Obama would have received only 7. (Obama received 20 with the winner-take-all system in place; Romney received 0 electors.)

The great thing about our current Electoral College system is that each state can make its own decisions about how to allocate electors (assuming those decisions “pass muster under other constitutional provisions”). And it can reverse itself if it determines that it made a mistake. Article II of the Constitution explicitly states: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . .” There are valid arguments for implementing a District system of elector allocation: Most importantly, it allows diversity within the state to be reflected in electoral vote totals. Maine and Nebraska have successfully used such a system for many years.

There are downsides, too. As the Pennsylvania legislature considers this issue, it should take into account the malleability of congressional district lines. Clifford B. Levine expresses this point in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article: “With statewide elections, each candidate has a fair opportunity to win; statewide boundaries are not subject to political manipulation as are state and congressional districts.”

Perhaps the most significant advantage that the winner-take-all system has over the congressional district system is that state lines are permanent. Congressional districts are not: They are contrived and controlled by an incumbent class of officials. Thus, these same incumbents can also influence election outcomes.  In all likelihood, Maine and Nebraska’s success with the District system stems at least in part from the fact that they have so few congressional districts: Incumbents’ ability to manipulate these lines is limited.

At the end of the day, only Pennsylvania legislators/voters can decide what is best for Pennsylvania. But as they consider this issue, they should take into account all of the ramifications of their decision. Such a decision needs to be more than a mere emotional or political reaction to the outcome of the 2012 election.