I guess it’s never too early to think about the next presidential election! Pennsylvania legislators are already considering at least two bills that could change the way the state’s electoral votes are allocated during the 2016 election. The proposals stem from discontent with the 2012 results: Barack Obama won all 20 electoral votes from Pennsylvania, despite the fact that he won the state by only about 300,000 votes. He lost the election in 13 of 18 congressional districts.
One great thing about our Electoral College system is that each state is free to make its own decision regarding electoral vote allocation (assuming such decisions have only an internal impact; caveats for NPV’s end-run around the Constitution here). Pennsylvania legislators can and should make the best decision for their own state, without regard to what other states think of the decision. But they will serve their state best if they consider all the pros and cons of such a move. They should not let the 2012 outcome weigh too heavily in their thinking.
Following is a description of the two proposals under consideration and a few pros and cons of each:
Congressional District Proposal This plan would require Pennsylvania to allocate its electors by congressional district. One elector would be awarded to the winner of each congressional district. The remaining two electors would be given to the winner of the statewide vote. In 2012, Romney would have won Pennsylvania with 13 votes to Obama’s 7.
Proponents argue that the plan would allow Pennsylvania to better express the variety of views within the state. They hope that it would encourage candidates to focus on the entire state, undermining the disproportionate focus on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. These are valid concerns, but there are downsides as well. First, the plan will increase gerrymandering concerns. Second, the plan could actually narrow the playing field in the state, despite the hopes of its proponents that the opposite would happen. Most congressional districts are specifically drawn to be “safe” for one political party. Fewer districts are contested. Rather than broadening the playing field to the entire state, the plan may inadvertently narrow the playing field to one or two swing districts within the state.
Proportional Allocation of Votes The second proposal would have Pennsylvania allocate its votes proportionally, according to the percentages won by each candidate in the state. With this system in place, Obama would have won the state in 2012 with 12 votes to Romney’s 8.
The primary benefit of the plan is that the results would mirror the popular vote in the state, thus reflecting the diversity of views within the state. There is at least one downside that Pennsylvania should consider, however. There are difficulties with allocating electors under such a system because electors are real people! You can’t award half a person to a presidential candidate. Pennsylvania would need to make decisions about how to round its results: Should electoral votes be rounded to a tenth of a vote? A hundredth or a thousandth of a vote? What happens when a swing of 100 votes in the state changes this “rounding” and thus the identity of one elector? If the national election is not close, the matter would probably not turn into a crisis. But if the election is as close as it was in 2000, then the plan carries a near-guarantee that a lawsuit could be filed over the allocation of at least one electoral vote in the state. If other states adopt the proportional plan, the probability of these types of lawsuits will increase because up to 50 electoral votes could be in play during any given election year.
The pros and cons of these plans are discussed in more detail in Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College