Tag Archives: electoral college

Tinkering With the Electoral College

Some lawmakers in Pennsylvania are talking about changing the way the state apportions its electoral votes in presidential elections.  Instead of winner-take-all, they’d like to distribute the votes proportionally, based on the percentage of votes the candidates receive.

Now The Curmudgeon has never been much of a fan of the electoral college.  Truth be told, he’s always been suspicious of any college that doesn’t have a good library and a pompous blowhard as its president.  Still, as much as this liberal hates to admit it, these conservative legislators seem to have a pretty good idea.

But only on the surface.  They’re on the right track, but their pretty good idea actually turns out to be a pretty awful one.

The electoral college, for those of you who had the good sense to zone out when your teachers tried to explain this preposterous concept to you, was a poorly crafted compromise between the desire of some of the founders to have Congress select the president – the founding fathers, for all their virtues, had little confidence in the common man – and the desire of others to let those same common men (remember:  women didn’t vote back then) do the selecting.  The compromise was to let the states do the choosing, hence, the electoral college.

The clumsy electoral college is mystifying to most of us.  The Curmudgeon – one of those kids who actually did pay attention in school – cannot remember any of his teachers satisfactorily explaining why it was preferable to the approach employed in every other election:  that he (or she) who gets the most votes wins the election.

But that’s the way it is, and it’s no wonder that Republican leaders in Pennsylvania don’t like it:  Democrats keep winning the popular vote in the state, but not always by overwhelming margins, and then that winning Democrat gets every single one of the state’s electoral votes.  Of course they’re unhappy and want to change it.  The Curmudgeon can’t say he blames them.  There’s a degree to which they’re just being sore losers, of course, but there’s also, unquestionably, a good deal of merit to what they’re saying and what they’re proposing.

Only it would be a terrible, terrible idea.

If every state made the same change it would be a great idea.  Of course, if every state made the same change, there’d be no point to keeping the electoral college at all.  It would make more sense just to abolish it.

But as long as the electoral college exists, making Pennsylvania’s electoral votes proportional to the ballots cast would only marginalize the state in an unmistakable way.  Pennsylvania would become the most irrelevant state in all of presidential politics.

Why?  Think about it:  last year, Pennsylvania had twenty electoral votes – fifth highest among the states.  Candidates want those twenty votes – a lot.  They’re willing to work hard to get them because they could make a difference in the outcome of an election.  Working hard, in this case, means establishing serious campaign organizations in the state, coming to make speeches and participate in rallies, and advertising heavily on television and radio.  Pennsylvania is an important piece of political real estate, and a piece worth fighting for (damn, The Curmudgeon hates to end a sentence a preposition with).

But if Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes on a proportional basis, it may never see another presidential candidate again.  Why?  Because the state’s electoral votes wouldn’t be worth fighting for anymore.  If, for example, one candidate won sixty percent of the state’s votes – a genuine landslide – he would receive just twelve of the state’s twenty electoral votes on a proportional basis.  That’s only four more than his opponent would receive – eight votes – for winning forty percent of the votes.

So the net benefit to the victorious candidate in Pennsylvania would be just four electoral votes.

Do you think presidential candidates are going to spend vast sums of money competing for four electoral votes?  Do you think that with four electoral votes at stake, they’d ever even set foot in Pennsylvania again?

And if you’re a Pennsylvanian, how do you like the idea of your large industrial state having as much influence on the outcome of presidential elections as those political powerhouse states of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, with their four electoral votes, and only one more electoral vote than Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, all proud owners of three whole electoral votes?

And if an election in the state is relatively close – as has been the case in eleven of the past dozen presidential elections – the winning party would receive only eleven electoral votes, to its opponent’s nine, making Pennsylvania the least valuable electoral territory in the entire country.

So if the Republican officials in Pennsylvania who’ve come up with this idea care about their state and want its voice heard, they’ve really hit upon a profoundly bad way to do that.

But if, on the other hand, they’ve given up completely on the idea of a Republican ever winning the state again and just want to do what they can to hurt Democrats, then they’ve found a great way to do it:  by making the votes their state casts irrelevant and preventing their states’ voters from having the same voice in the selection of presidents as the voters in every other state.

Come to think of it, this could work even better for Pennsylvania Republicans than their (temporarily) sidetracked attempt to prevent poor people and minorities from registering to vote.  Sure, they’ll let them vote, but they just won’t count those votes the way they always did.  With a little effort, they can apply that philosophy to the entire state.

Only in Pennsylvania.

 

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