Pa. May Change Electoral College Allocation Rules

Republican leaders in Pennsylvania's Legislature want to change how Electoral College votes in the state are allocated. Changing from a winner-takes-all system to a proportionate one based on congressional districts could help the GOP candidate gain a few extra votes in 2012. But the plan is controversial — even among Republicans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Pennsylvania, the 2012 election is on a lot of people's minds. That's because some Republican leaders in Pennsylvania want to change how the state allocates its Electoral College votes. Democrats claim the change would help Republicans in next year's election.

NPR's Jeff Brady has our story from Philadelphia.

JEFF BRADY: Pennsylvania is a key swing state in national elections and will be an important prize for presidential candidates with its 20 votes in the Electoral College of 2012. Like all but two other states, Pennsylvania has a winner-take-all system that allocates all its votes to statewide winner.

So in 2008, President Obama won 55 percent of the popular vote here but received 100 percent of the electoral votes. Pennsylvania's Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi believes that's a problem. He's proposed legislation to allocate the state's votes proportionately.

State Senator DOMINIC PILEGGI: It's a very straight-forward goal, a very simple goal to understand. I think that the Electoral College vote should more closely approximate the popular vote, which reflects the will of the people of Pennsylvania.

BRADY: Pileggi announced last week that he's introducing a bill that would change Pennsylvania's system, and the issue quickly became the state's number one topic in political circles. One reason is that the bill would allocate electoral votes based primarily on congressional districts. And, as it happens, Pileggi's party is currently in the process of redrawing those district lines. So, under his plan, even the statewide loser could walk away with half or more of the electoral votes.

Democratic State Senator Daylin Leach calls this an obscene power grab.

State Senator DAYLIN LEACH: This is the sort of thing that, you know, someone like Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe - they fix elections. In America, we don't fix elections, okay?

BRADY: Aside from vigorous Democratic opposition, there is a sense the proposal could backfire on Republicans in the Keystone State. Chris Borick directs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and he says the change could make Pennsylvania less relevant in next year's election. If the sate splits its electoral votes, then candidates might focus their efforts on other, more competitive states.

CHRIS BORICK (MUHLENBERG COLLEGE INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC OPINION): There's really a sense in Pennsylvania that some of our national power rests with our role in presidential elections, being one of the key swing states.

BRADY: And it's not too difficult to imagine a scenario under which proportionate votes in the Electoral College could end up hurting some Republicans, especially members of Congress in Philadelphia's suburban swing districts.

At Franklin and Marshall College, political science professor Terry Madonna says if the statewide popular vote doesn't matter as much anymore, then Democratic strategists likely will focus more of their energy on vulnerable Republicans.

TERRY MADONNA: And the Republican members of Congress from those swing districts are pushing back, saying, maybe this isn't the best idea we ever came up with.

BRADY: For political science professors, though, there is one silver lining to this debate - one of their favorite topics, the Electoral College, is now a subject of general discussion.

Again, Chris Borick from Muhlenberg College.

BORICK: In Pennsylvania, the Electoral College hasn't had this much interest probably since, you know, 1787 and the founding of the Constitution in Philadelphia.

BRADY: State Republican leaders are meeting this weekend in Pennsylvania's capitol, Harrisburg. The debate over how to allocate the state's Electoral College votes almost certainly will dominate many conversations.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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