2011-09-22 / Features

Pa. Electoral Reshuffling Plan Not A Done Deal

By PETER JACKSON
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Even though technically it’s not yet a bill, a plan to change how Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes in presidential elections has ignited a fiery debate over its fairness, its legality and its effect on the state’s substantial clout in national politics.

The fact that the proposal is sponsored by the state Senate Republican leader and endorsed by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in a year that the Republican-controlled Legislature is poised to redraw the state’s congressional districts provides a decidedly partisan backdrop to the discussion.

Adding intrigue to the mix, both the state Republican Party chairman and the national GOP political committee that has the mission of electing Republicans to Congress oppose the proposal by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

Pileggi wants to replace the present system of awarding all of the state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins the statewide election – as 47 other states do. The number of electoral votes will shrink from 21 to 20 in the 2012 election, reflecting the loss of one U.S. House seat due to the state’s relatively sluggish population growth.

Under Pileggi’s plan, candidates would garner an electoral vote for each of the state’s 18 congressional districts that they carry and the other two electoral votes would go to the winner of the statewide balloting. It would place Pennsylvania alongside the much smaller states of Maine and Nebraska as the only states that use that method.

In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania and claimed all 21 electoral votes by defeating Republican John McCain by about 620,000 votes out of 6 million cast.

Had Pileggi’s plan been in effect for the same election, Obama would have won 11 electoral votes – nine for winning that many congressional districts and two for winning the statewide vote – and McCain would have won 10.

For any presidential candidate who wins Pennsylvania, the winner-take-all system provides a big step toward the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected. Pileggi’s approach would likely yield small steps for both candidates.

Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in the last five presidential elections – George H.W. Bush was the last GOP candidate to do so, in 1988 – but Pileggi insists that his proposal is motivated by a spirit of fairness and not partisanship.

“It’s not designed to help Republican voters or Democrat voters, but all voters, to make sure that their votes are more relevant,’’ the Delaware County lawmaker said in a telephone interview with radio station WPHT-AM in Philadelphia as the public debate picked up steam.

“It more accurately reflects the will of the people,’’ Corbett said.

Critics say the plan would undermine Pennsylvania’s status as a presidential election battleground, prompting the national candidates to scale back campaign appearances that buoy voter enthusiasm for office-seekers at all levels and depriving the state of millions of dollars of related economic activity.

State GOP chairman Rob Gleason said he is convinced that the party can carry Pennsylvania in 2012 and can’t understand why proponents are so eager to change the system.

“This is the year we can win all 20 (electoral votes),’’ he said. “Why we would want to give up half of them is beyond me.’’

The state GOP’s annual fall fundraiser Friday night in Harrisburg was abuzz with talk about the plan, but even some of Corbett’s oldest allies were critical.

“I think it will hurt us in the fall, particularly in 2012,’’ said Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County GOP chairman and former elected county executive.

In Washington, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee expressed a similarly dim view of the plan.

“We feel that this proposal threatens to negatively alter the political landscape of House races for Republicans and will have a minimal effect on the presidential race,’’ Tory Mazzola said.

Ed Rendell, the former two-term governor who served as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2000, called the plan a “blatantly, odiously partisan’’ attempt to assure electoral votes for GOP presidential candidates regardless of the statewide outcome.

“It’s like unilateral disarmament,’’ Rendell said. “If every state in the union did it, it might be more acceptable.’’

Pennsylvania appears to be the only state considering such a move this year, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There has not been a widespread push nationally to go to the district system in recent memory,’’ said Tim Storey, an NCSL senior fellow.

Both Rendell and Gleason warned that presidential candidates would bypass Pennsylvania if the change becomes law.

“I think they’re going to go to places where there are 20 votes up for grabs, not to places where there are just two,’’ Gleason said.

“Why would you pay any attention to Pennsylvania? Why would you care, day in and day out, about doing things for Pennsylvania?’’ Rendell asked. “We’re sacrificing tremendous clout that we presently have in the name of partisanship.’’

Corbett, midway through his first year as governor, predicted that candidates would continue to stump in Pennsylvania if the law were to be changed, but they would simply shift their focus to the congressional districts.

“We’re still a swing state,’’ he said.

Pileggi said a hearing will be held soon on his plan. Perhaps by then, it will be a bill.

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