The Corner

Pennsylvania and the Electoral College

Pernsylvania Republicans are talking about shifting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to a district system, like Maine’s and Nebraska’s, in hopes of reaping GOP votes from the God and gun clingers between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Gaming the Electoral College for partisan advantage — who would think of such a thing?

James Madison, for one. One of his tasks in the election of 1800 was to push Virginia, where he served in the legislature, to a winner-take-all system. In the election of 1796, Madison’s friend Thomas Jefferson had lost one Virginia electoral vote, from a hillbilly district in the west, to John Adams. Under winner-take-all, Jefferson would suffer no such attrition.

Alexander Hamilton, for another. New York’s legislature picked the state’s presidential electors. After the Jeffersonians swept the New York legislative elections early in 1800, Hamilton wrote governor John Jay urging him to change New York’s system to popular vote by electoral districts (rather like the Pennsylvania Republicans today). With voting by districts, Jefferson would only split the state’s electoral votes. Jay would not go along.

So Publius divided, 2–1, for gaming the system.

The journalist who writes most regularly about the Electoral College is probably Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker. His ideal is a national plebiscitary system, which he believes would benefit the Left. He probably wouldn’t go as far as Ross Perot, holding a referendum on every piece of legislation, but I don’t know if he could explain why he wouldn’t.

I question the Pennsylvania Republican plan for two reasons. Suppose there is a double-dip recession and the Republicans actually carry Pennsylvania next year. Then they would be doing a favor to Barack Obama, by awarding him the votes cast by the two cities.

Much more important, attempts to change Electoral College rules will cast doubt on the entire system. The most likely replacement would be a national vote, à la Hertzberg, which I fear as an incentive to vote stealing beyond all imagining. As things stand now, a national campaign is concerned to steal votes only in a few key states (as in 1960). But if every vote across the country counts equally, then every stolen vote counts equally.

The wacky Left thinks the Bush family rigged the voting machines in Ohio in 2004. But I assume that the most efficient stealers would be the Democrats. Whoever is right, Katy bar the door.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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