Some left-wing pundits are going off the deep end today because of the proposal mooted by Pennsylvania State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi that would divide the state’s electoral votes in future presidential elections by congressional districts rather than a winner-take-all system as currently exists in 48 out of the 50 states. For writers like the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen or the Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein, it’s a nefarious GOP plot to steal the next election and part of a concerted effort to disenfranchise Democrats.
One needn’t be in favor of the proposal to see this reaction as an example of liberal hysteria rather than a serious critique. Though probably misguided, splitting a state’s electoral votes along those lines is not illegal. It is already the case in Maine and Nebraska, without democracy being threatened. As for its impact on the next election, though it might benefit the GOP if Pennsylvania did it without being copied by any other large states, were the practice to be applied everywhere in the country, it is far from clear either party could count on it providing an edge in a presidential election.
If votes were divided up in this manner everywhere, the Democrats would be able to steal some votes from red states like Texas (which is the big winner in the new post-2010 census alignment) as well as other Republican strongholds. It’s true such a system would chip away from the Democratic strength in California and New York, two states that are probably not going to be in play for the foreseeable future. But if the last three elections have taught us anything, it is that most states in the union are likely up for grabs, including Pennsylvania, where in 2004 John Kerry’s margin of victory was about the same as George W. Bush’s equally small — and controversial — edge in neighboring Ohio. Reshuffling the deck along district rather than state lines might, as liberals lament, create a situation where the loser of the popular vote might win the Electoral College. But didn’t that already happen under the existing system?
The virtue of applying this scheme in every state would be that it would cause both parties to try and compete throughout the country instead of writing off those where they were in a minority. That would force the GOP to spend money in New York and California, and the Democrats to do the same in Texas as well as other parts of the South and the West where Republicans dominate. If anything, it might produce a result more closely aligned with the popular vote , because states that were narrowly won by either side might now accrue to the credit of both rather than just one.
It is true if only a few states switched that might create an advantage for one party over the other. Yet that isn’t likely, because any such move would almost certainly set off a chain reaction of switches around the country.
As for the reasons not to do it, one could oppose it on grounds of tradition. It could also be pointed out that unlike the states, most congressional districts are the result of racial balkanization or partisan gerrymandering that say more about power politics than democracy. But the idea that it is part of a Republican war on voting is absurd. After all, it is the Democrats who have dug in their heels against any effort to counter voter fraud at the polls, even though we all know cheating at elections is imbedded in the parties’ DNA.
But there is a better reason than Democratic hysteria or false charges of stealing elections for Pennsylvania Republicans to forget this proposal. Barack Obama’s poll numbers there are such he would be a fool to consider it in his pocket. Which means the only loser in this dustup might be the GOP if they win Pennsylvania in November 2012–as they very well might.