We’ve been covering a number of attempts by state GOP lawmakers to prevent traditionally Democratic voters from casting votes that count – including a flood of new laws requiring photo ID to vote.
But all those are nothing compared to what Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature is considering: changing the state’s system of apportioning electoral votes so that even if President Obama wins the state’s popular vote in 2012, he’d take less than half of its electors. Nick Baumann at Mother Jones reports:
The problem for Obama, and the opportunity for Republicans, is the electoral college. Every political junkie knows that the presidential election isn't a truly national contest; it's a state-by-state fight, and each state is worth a number of electoral votes equal to the size of the state's congressional delegation. (The District of Columbia also gets three votes.) There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs; win 270, and you're the president.
Here's the rub, though: Each state gets to determine how its electoral votes are allocated. Currently, 48 states and DC use a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of its electoral votes. Under the Republican plan—which has been endorsed by top Republicans in both houses of the state's legislature, as well as the governor, Tom Corbett—Pennsylvania would change from this system to one where each congressional district gets its own electoral vote. (Two electoral votes—one for each of the state's two senators—would go to the statewide winner.)
This could cost Obama dearly. The GOP controls both houses of the state legislature plus the governor's mansion—the so-called "redistricting trifecta"—in Pennsylvania. Congressional district maps are adjusted after every census, and the last one just finished up. That means Pennsylvania Republicans get to draw the boundaries of the state's congressional districts without any input from Democrats. Some of the early maps have leaked to the press, and Democrats expect that the Pennsylvania congressional map for the 2012 elections will have 12 safe GOP seats compared to just 6 safe Democratic seats.
Under the Republican plan, if the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight—six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for carrying the state. This would have an effect equivalent to flipping a small winner-take-all state—say, Nevada, which has six electoral votes—from blue to red. And Republicans wouldn't even have to do any extra campaigning or spend any extra advertising dollars to do it.
Nebraska and Maine already have the system the Pennsylvania GOP is pushing. But the two states' small electoral vote values mean it's actually mathematically impossible for a candidate to win the popular vote there but lose the electoral vote, says Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law professor at Yale University. Pennsylvania, however, is a different story: "It might be very likely to happen in [Pennsylvania], and that's what makes this something completely new under the sun," Amar says. "It's something that no previous legislature in America since the Civil War has ever had the audacity to impose."
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with apportioning electoral votes by congressional district like Maine and Nebraska do – but when the strategy is combined with political gerrymandering and applied only selectively it becomes decidedly undemocratic. That Pennsylvania Republicans are not planning to divvy up the state’s electoral votes to match the percentage breakdown of the popular vote indicates that this has nothing to do with reflecting the will of the people, and everything to do with aggressive anti-democratic power plays.
The plan, though dishonest, is perfectly legal – and available to a number of large states now controlled by GOP legislatures.
The plan seems almost too convenient for the Pennsylvania GOP, but I wonder if it would backfire – suppressive laws like voter ID requirements can be hidden under made-up “voter fraud” threats, but what excuse could a legislature come up with for a plan to make every single Democratic voter in the state count for less? I’d like to think that once fair-minded Pennsylvanians get a whiff of this, they won’t let their legislature get away with it.