Pennsylvania’s members of the Electoral College gathered in Harrisburg on Monday to take part in their quadrennial ritual: casting their formal votes for the winning ticket in the presidential election. Which means that all 20, including Mayor Michael Nutter, registered their votes for President Obama and Vice President Biden, who carried the majority of the state’s popular vote. Those electors included Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators and one representative from each congressional district. Addressing them during a 90-minute ceremony at the state capitol, Gov. Tom Corbett spoke not of his own party’s electoral turmoil, but the greater workings of the American election. “This is a peaceful decision, as compared to what we see in other countries, and we should always have it that way,” he said. “We are not here because one party failed—we are here because the system succeeded.”
That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way: It’s become increasingly clear that Pennsylvania is only really a swing state if Democrats stay home on Election Day. The last six presidential elections have shown that when Democrats come out to the polls in the blue parts of the state, they win. Handily.
Republicans appear to see that writing on the wall. Corbett’s high-minded speech to the Electors last week is at odds with what some of his party mates in the state legislature are saying. State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester, for one, isn’t so sure the system succeeded. “Anyone who voted for Governor Romney, and many Pennsylvanians did, does not have any reflection of that vote in the electoral college vote,” Pileggi said in a statement released just after the election. Hence his new proposal: that Pennsylvania should adopt proportional electoral voting, splitting the electoral vote to match the breakdown of the popular vote, rather than the current “winner-take-all” model that’s long been used not only by Pennsylvania but by all the states except Nebraska and Maine. “This is a proposal that is not party specific or partisan in any way,” Pileggi said, “but just an attempt to have the popular vote reflected in the electoral college vote.”
Here’s how that would work: This year, President Obama won 2.9 million votes in Pennsylvania, compared with 2.6 million for Romney, and thus received all 20 of the state’s electoral votes. Under Pileggi’s plan, Obama would have taken 12 electoral votes while Romney got eight—that’s 10 for Obama by straight proportionality, and two extra for having been the majority winner.
It’s the second time Pileggi has sug-gested a proportional rule; he introduced a similar bill last year that would have gone even a step farther, dividing the electoral votes geographically by congressional district. (That model, had it been enacted, would have given Obama seven electoral votes and Romney 13, despite Obama’s solid popular win. And it’s worth noting that Corbett supported that more partisan proposal at the time.)
Proportional voting would make things more “fair,” its supporters suggest. Sure—for whichever party currently tends to lose the state in question. And therein lies the rub: This kind of game-changing jiggering of the electoral rules may be the only way Pennsylvania Republicans can keep the state attractive to GOP presidential candidates, whose campaign investments here have shrunk over the past six elections—and especially the last two—as the state is too often seen as unwinnable
by the national party establishment. Heck, it took phony, partisan polls and misleading right-wing headlines just to get the Romney campaign to visit Pennsylvania in late October and November after having ignored the state throughout the entire campaign season. Unless something drastic happens between now and 2016, it’s hard to imagine the next Republican candidate will be the one to end six elections worth of Democratic momentum here.
A recent story in the National Journal notes that other bluish swing-state Republicans—those in Michigan and Wisconsin—have begun looking into the proportional model to game the system to benefit their candidates, too. “[I]f more reliably blue states … were to award their electoral votes proportionally, Republicans would be able to eat into what has become a deep Democratic advantage,” Reid Wilson wrote earlier this week.
Pileggi’s proposal, were it to become reality, could kick Pennsylvania out of the blue and make it a swing state again—perhaps even the country’s first legitimate “purple” state, since Pennsylvania would be the largest and most evenly divided state to separate its electoral votes in such fashion. Democratic reaction to the idea, naturally, has so far been that of universal opposition, Pileggi’s claim of bipartisanship notwithstanding. State Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn called the plan “sour grapes.” And meanwhile, citizen groups like Fair Vote have also called the proposal troublesome; they’ve advocated for a national plan to examine the Electoral College, instead of single states taking on the issue in obvious partisan fashion.