Pennsylvania Republicans are working on a plan that's as mischievous as it is completely legitimate: apportioning its electoral votes by congressional district instead of the current winner-take-all system. Under the new system, a presidential candidate would receive an electoral vote for each congressional district he or she (but let's be honest — this year, it's going to once again be a he) wins, plus two more if he wins the statewide vote count. For example, since John McCain won ten out of Pennsylvania's 19 districts in 2008, he would receive 10 electoral votes, instead of the zero he took home under the state's current system. Obama would have received 11 electoral votes — 9 for the congressional district he won, plus two for winning the state — instead of the 21 he was awarded.
Pennsylvania, like every other state, is free to dole out its electoral votes however it wants. Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature as well as the governorship, so if the GOP wants to switch over to a congressional-district apportionment system, all the Democrats can really do is whine. As Nick Baumann points out in Mother Jones today, the same thing could be repeated in other blue states across the country.
After their epic sweep of state legislative and gubernatorial races in 2010, Republicans also have total political control of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three other big states that traditionally go Democratic and went for Obama in 2012. Implementing a Pennsylvania-style system in those three places — in Ohio, for example, Democrats anticipate controlling just 4 or 5 of the state's 16 congressional districts — could offset Obama wins in states where he has expanded the electoral map, like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, or New Mexico. "If all these rust belt folks get together and make this happen that could be really dramatic," says Carolyn Fiddler, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which coordinates state political races for the Dems.
Democrats, meanwhile, don't have the ability to retaliate by splitting up the electoral votes of traditionally red states:
The only states that John McCain won where Dems control both houses of the state legislature are Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia. West Virginia is too small for splitting the electoral votes to have much effect, and Mississippi has a Republican governor. That leaves Arkansas, another small state — and one where McCain won every district handily in 2008.
All in all, altering the electoral system in these four states could hand literally dozens of votes to the GOP candidate. In what's expected to be a close election, Obama would have almost no chance of overcoming that.
As something of an aside, the congressional-district apportionment system, even if it was enacted nationwide, is inherently biased toward Republicans. To see why, let's look at the last two presidential elections. (WARNING: MATH)
According to our calculations, in 2008, President Obama won 52.7 percent of the national vote, but with his 365 electoral votes, he won 67.8 percent of the electoral college. But if every state in the country had used the congressional-district apportionment system in 2008, Obama would have won 301 electoral votes (242 districts, plus 56 for winning 28 states, plus 3 for D.C.), which is 55.4 percent of the electoral college. So in 2008, the congressional-district apportionment system would have more accurately reflected the popular vote, and it would have helped John McCain.
In 2004, President Bush won 50.7 percent of the popular vote, and his 286 electoral votes represented 53.15 percent of the electoral college. Had every state in the country used the congressional-district apportionment system in 2004, Bush would have won 317 electoral votes (255 districts, plus 62 for winning 31 states), or 58.9 percent of the electoral college. So in 2004, the congressional-district apportionment system would have less accurately reflected the popular vote, and it would have helped ... George W. Bush.
Either way, splitting up electoral votes by congressional district helps the Republican. That's because Democratic districts are more Democratic than Republican districts are Republican. As Michael Barone of the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote last year:
[I]n 2004 John Kerry won 80% or more of the vote in 19 congressional districts, while the number of congressional districts in which George W. Bush won 80% or more was zero. Similarly and even more starkly, in 2008 Barack Obama won 80% or more of the vote in 28 congressional districts, while the number of congressional districts in which John McCain won 80% or more was zero.
The only way for the electoral college to accurately reflect the national popular vote is if the electoral college is directly tied to the popular vote.
But that's all kind of a hypothetical argument right now. The congressional-apportionment system isn't being implemented in every state. It's happening, maybe, in Pennsylvania, and three other states if the GOP feels like embracing a golden opportunity to rig the election in its favor.
The GOP's Genius Plan to Beat Obama in 2012 [Mother Jones]
Update: Even though some state Republican leaders are pushing the switch, it's hardly a done deal. Politico reports that the idea scares some of Pennsylvania's Republican congressmen:
But to several Republicans in marginal districts, the plan has a catch: they’re worried that Democrats will move dollars and ground troops from solid blue districts to battlegrounds in pursuit of electoral votes — and in the process, knock off the Republicans currently in the seats.
Suburban Philadelphia Reps. Jim Gerlach, Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick have the most at stake, since all represent districts Democrats won in the last two presidential elections. They and the rest of the Republicans in the delegation are joining with National Republican Congressional Committee officials to respond and mobilize against the change.
And other Republicans are less concerned about getting a Republican president into the White House than they are about maintaining Pennsylvania's status as a coveted, electoral-vote-rich battleground state:
State GOP chairman Rob Gleason is also opposed to the plan.
“We would no longer be a battleground state with all the benefits that come with that,” he said. “It would affect us all the way down ticket. We’re gonna win the presidency here anyway, so why we would do this now when we’re at the top of the heap is beyond me.”