Republicans Plan to Use PA to Win the Presidency in 2016

FairVote's Rob Richie on how the GOP wants to change the voting rules.

One of the worst-kept secrets of the 2012 general election is that Republicans didn’t really sweep another majority in the House. Yes, the new House has a 33-seat Republican majority, but according to statistician Samuel Wang, 26 of those seats can be attributed to a single factor: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering works great to lock down seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s not a great tactic for winning the White House. The GOP would very much like to change that by leveraging the power of partisan congressional districts. To that end, Pennsylvania is at the forefront of a national GOP effort to win the presidency in 2016 by changing the rules of the game.

Two proposals in Harrisburg would change the way electoral votes are allocated—awarding them proportionally, based on who wins in each given district, instead of by a winner-takes-all system. Under such a system, President Obama, who won 52 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, would have gotten just 12 of its electoral votes.

Critics say the move not only threatens to undermine Pennsylvania’s importance as a swing state, but would allow political parties to effectively redistrict themselves into the White House. Rob Richie, director of the group FairVote, blames increasing voter disenfranchisement on our archaic electoral system and calls for nationwide reforms including elections based on a national popular vote. Rob Richie, director of the group FairVote, blames increasing voter disenfranchisement on our archaic electoral system and calls for reforms including elections based on a national popular vote and replacing small single-member districts with larger multi-seat ones.

You maintain that we have an easily manipulated system that doesn’t accurately reflect voter sentiment. What are some examples of how this was reflected in the 2012 presidential election?
The best example of rigging elections in 2012 came from the U.S. House elections, but the presidential election also showed the problem of taking a large pool of voters and dividing them into separate elections defined by geography.

For president, our current Electoral College rules mean that we don’t have a national election in which all voters in all states can participate equally. Because it’s “winner take all,” that means candidates focus on a handful of battleground states and ignore any state where one candidate is comfortably ahead.

Would things be any better if districts were drawn by an independent commission?
Gerrymandering is one of many examples of the United States being saddled with electoral rules that date back to the two centuries. It’s obviously ridiculous to allow the political playing field to be shaped by partisans, and we should have independent redistricting commissions governed by sensible criteria. But our analyses show that ANY single member district plan is going to be a “gerrymander” from someone’s perspective because it always is going to create many districts that are safe for only one party and usually create an overall tilt for one party.

You describe how the GOP is looking to exploit the inherent weakness of the electoral college and single-member districts to basically guarantee themselves a presidential victory in 2016. How do they plan on going about it?
The rule that the winner of a state’s popular vote earns all of a state’s electoral votes is not in the Constitution. It’s a state law, and one that many states didn’t do early on. In states where Democrats have been winning—and there are six states that Obama won in both 2008 and 2012 with state governments controlled by Republicans—they are seriously debating changing the winner-take-all rule to divide electoral votes according to each presidential nominee’s share of the popular vote or how each candidate does in each congressional district.

That may sound “fair,” but on the national level, it’s designed to tilt the field toward Republicans by having their nominee win electoral votes in states they are losing, without the same chance for a Democrat in Republican-leaning states. In fact, if one version of the district system had been done in all six states in 2012, Mitt Romney would have gone from losing by 126 electoral votes to actually winning the election—all without changing a single popular vote.

The GOP in Pennsylvania is proposing legislation to award electoral votes proportionately based on each presidential candidate’s share of the popular vote, rather than the current winner-take-all system. How do schemes like this further marginalize voters?
Right now, Pennsylvania is usually one of the favored swing states. Unlike neighboring states like New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and New York, your statewide vote is reasonably close in presidential elections, so the candidates pour lots of resources into trying to win the state and all its electoral votes. That was a lot less true in 2012, as Obama’s win in 2008 was large enough that Romney’s campaign thought it was better to try in other swing states. But the final result indicates that Pennsylvania has a decent chance of being a swing state in 2016.

However, if Pennsylvania went to Sen. [Dominic] Pileggi’s proportional plan, it would essentially predetermine the number of electoral votes each side would get. Campaign activity rarely affects the percentage of the vote by more than a percentage point or two, so often the candidates would look at the state and decide that spending millions of dollars in the state would at best swing just one electoral vote. That’s just not going to be seen as worth it, so Pennsylvania would lock itself into the same “spectator” status as most of ts neighbors.