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Congressional district-based electoral votes would have changed history, but rarely

By   /   October 4, 2011  /   1 Comment

Pileggi plan getting competition from National Popular Vote plan
By Caleb Taylor | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Richard Nixon could have defeated John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, if every state awarded its electoral votes according to a leading state Senate Republican’s proposal.

Kennedy won, narrowly, because all of  the state's electoral votes were awarded to the contender with the largest number of statewide votes.
However, changing this system so that electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the congressional district would be more fair and avoid disenfranchising millions of voters who backed losing candidates, said Luke Bernstein, a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tom Corbett, on Tuesday. 
“Every presidential election, millions of Pennsylvania voters do not have their voices heard when Pennsylvania’s electors cast their vote for president,” Bernstein told the Senate State Government Committee, in a statement of support from the Corbett administration on the potential change to how Pennsylvania chooses a president.
The Electoral College reform bill, introduced by state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, would allocate one of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to the popular vote winner in each of the 18 congressional districts with the remaining two at-large votes going to the statewide winner. 
Only two states — Maine and Nebraska — use the congressional district-based approach.
Republicans, who support the plan, said changing the distribution of electoral votes would better represent the competitiveness of presidential elections in Pennsylvania, but Democrats and proponents of the National Popular Vote plan, a competing alternative, said the bill would result in lower turnout and less competitive elections because many congressional districts are shaped for political benefit.
In defending Pileggi’s plan, Bernstein pointed to 1988, when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis won more than 48.3 percent of the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but did not receive a single electoral vote because of the winner-take-all system. That was the last time Pennsylvania voted Republican in a presidential election.
A similar incident occurred in 2004 when President George W. Bush won more than 48 percent of the state’s vote, but John Kerry took all 21 of the state’s electoral votes.
These examples demonstrated that an individual vote did not carry substantial weight, Bernstein said.
“Allocating electoral votes based on congressional districts is a step toward better protecting the integrity of an individual’s vote for president,” he said.
Opponents argued the measure would result in candidates only spending time in a few competitive districts.
“Pennsylvanians are not going to have an opportunity to discuss these issues, to see the candidates or see active, real campaigns,” said state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.
Dinniman also said awarding two electoral votes to the candidate who won the statewide popular vote wouldn’t motivate presidential candidates to campaign throughout the state.
According to an analysis by state Auditor General Jack Wagner, presidential and vice presidential campaigns spent more than $71 million on advertising in Pennsylvania during the 2008 campaign. The candidates that year made 47 visits to the state as well.

Wagner said changing the electoral vote system in the state would jeopardize that revenue.
If Pileggi’s proposal was law in 2008, McCain would have received 10 electoral votes because he won the popular vote in 10 congressional districts. Obama would have garnered 11 votes for the nine congressional districts he won plus the two Senate votes for winning the statewide popular vote.
Nationally, using an Electoral College based on congressional districts instead of states would have changed the outcome in 1960, but not in more recent close elections.  Bill Clinton would still have ousted President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and President George W. Bush would still have won in 2000 and 2004.
Christopher Borick, associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said the proposal was “rotten” because congressional districts are “gerrymandered monstrosities.” Gerrymandering involves dividing election districts to the advantage of one political party.  
“The pursuit of ‘safe seats’ where incumbents have little to worry about in terms of competition has become the driving force behind the construction of district boundaries,” said Borick.

Republicans are hardly united on the plan. Not a single one of Pennsylvania's 12 congressional Republicans have publicly supported the proposal.
In addition to the Pileggi-backed plan, an alternative proposal, sponsored by state. Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, would award Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide.
That plan has some rank-and-file support but lacks the backing of the legislative leaders and the governor.
Nine states, with a total of 132 electoral votes, have passed national popular vote proposal into law.
If enough states pass similar laws to amount to the 270 electoral votes needed for a majority to win the presidential election, presidential elections would be decided by popular vote.
“The sponsors’ (of Pileggi’s proposal) interest is in bringing the elections closer to the people and we agree with that, but we think what we are suggesting is the ultimate result of doing that,” said former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, who is helping build support for that format nationally. He was here Tuesday to discuss the plan with lawmakers and staff.
PA Independent's Eric Boehm contributed to this report.