Is Pennsylvania Hijacking the Presidential Election?

by Tara Ross

Readers of this blog will remember that the National Popular Vote campaign is striving to effectively eliminate the Electoral College by asking states to allocate their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the winner of state popular votes. Now, it looks like NPV’s long road to changing the Electoral College might encounter a sudden detour.

Some Pennsylvania Republicans have proposed an alternative: a congressional-district system. One elector would be given to the winner of each district; the two remaining Pennsylvania electors would go to the winner of the state’s popular vote. Republicans would likely gain 11 or 12 electors in 2012. Needless to say, many Democrats are protesting the effort (see: here, here, and here).

Ultimately, Pennsylvania must decide for itself what to do. But there are several pros and cons to consider.

First, a congressional-district plan has the advantage of being in line with the Constitution, which NPV is not. Pennsylvania can allocate electors in any manner that serves its own state interests and may determine that a district system does just that. Such a choice does not impact the decisions of other states. By contrast, NPV asks Pennsylvania to collude with a minority of state legislatures to select a presidential election system for the rest of the country.

Under a congressional-district plan, candidates would be discouraged from focusing only on densely populated areas within the state, as diversity within Pennsylvania would be reflected in electoral vote totals. This is in keeping with the coalition-building incentives generally created by the Electoral College.

Unfortunately, a congressional-district plan could also provide increased motivation for gerrymandering. In close elections, this politicized process can affect election outcomes, though the impact in most cases would be minimal. National implementation of the congressional-district system would not have changed the outcome of any election in recent history, although it would have come close in 1976.

Looking beyond Pennsylvania, national adoption of the district system could change the focus of presidential campaigns in negative ways. Instead of “swing states,” we’d have “swing districts.” This could unfortunately encourage the federal government to become even more entangled in purely local matters.

Pennsylvania legislators should not implement a congressional district system based purely on partisan considerations. Perhaps they believe that NPV advocates have their own partisan reasons. The does not make such motivations any less unwise. Every state can make its own assessments on these matters and should make its own decision. But Pennsylvania legislators will serve their constituents — and their country — best if they remember to honestly assess what would serve their state, rather than their political party.

— Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.