Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pennsylvania's Mis-Adventures with the Electoral College

The Republican Party is hard at work in Pennsylvania. Under a new bill now making its way through the state legislature, the state would change its long-standing practice of awarding Electoral College votes under a winner-take-all system and instead would award them by Congressional districts. Why would Pennsylvania Republicans take this new route?  According to Dominic Pileggi, the Senate majority leader, “The goal is to have the votes in the Electoral College more closely reflect the popular vote . . . [and] [t]his is one way to do that.”


Last week, I was asked by the Washington Post to host an online session on this issue.  The questions were many and I couldn't possibly get to all of them in the time allotted.  Two themes immediately emerged.  One was the notion that Republicans were rigging the rules of the game for political advantage. A second was that Democrats were no better and would do the same thing if they could get away with it.  

The political calculation is easy enough to discern. Republicans are assuming that they will lose the statewide popular vote, something they have done since 1988.  But this is not a slam-dunk as a question of politics.  In going to a districting system, the state is simply shifting electoral incentives and will force candidates to campaign differently.  Whether this makes sense as a question of partisan politics thus requires a crystal ball, and Republicans clearly do not have one.  

It is hard to get worked up over this.  This is precisely what we would expect from a state where one party controls both the governorship and the state legislature.  And yet, it is hard not to be cynical about it. The question of how we elect a president is fraught with much difficulty. This is not an easy question, and the American nation has struggled with answers from the time of the founding.  While I am agnostic whether the Electoral College should be amended or even abolished, I am far more confident in the view that political expediency should play no role in this debate. 

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