State’s electoral system faces new GOP challenge

HARRISBURG – It’s the system Pennsylvania voters have known for more than two centuries: Every four years they cast their ballots for president, and the winner gets all the state’s electoral votes.

But a new bill approaching a House committee in Harrisburg could cast that system aside, allotting the state’s electoral votes to the winners of each congressional district and two statewide. The electoral votes each state has matches its combined number of U.S. representatives and senators.

The change could be a boon to Republicans’ election hopes.

Had House Bill 94 been in effect for the November election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney would have taken 13 of the state’s 20 votes despite losing to President Barack Obama by a fairly wide margin statewide.

State Democrats have called it “election rigging.” But with Republicans controlling the state Legislature, House Bill 94 might have a chance in Harrisburg.

“That would definitely be favorable to Republicans, even across America,” state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said Thursday.

The bill is one of several recently submitted in battleground states with Republican-led legislatures; a similar proposal is making its way through the Virginia Senate.

“There’s a political calculation in it,” said Ray Wrabley, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. “Republicans have lost consecutive elections, and they’re looking for ways to get an advantage.”

Should the bill pass, central Pennsylvanians’ electoral votes – from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the edge of Philadelphia – could likely end up going to a conservative candidate, regardless of the statewide winner.

“I’m open to the debate,” state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, said Friday. “Obviously I don’t want to see anyone disenfranchised.”

If the proposed system became popular across the country, it could force presidential candidates to campaign more broadly, traveling to states that they previously took for granted, McGinnis said.

Only Maine and Nebraska currently allot electoral votes by district. If Pennsylvania is the only other state switching to that format, Wrabley said, it could actually make the state less relevant in presidential races. Candidates could simply let the chips fall where they may, avoiding expensive and exhausting fights here.

And perhaps more worrying to the bill’s likely supporters is the possibility that it could one day work against their party’s candidate. And if a Republican presidential hopeful wins the state, the system could blunt his victory.

“That could very easily swing in a few years. You’ve got to be careful what can of worms you open up there,” Fleck said.

Fleck said he hasn’t heard Republican higher-ups pushing for the proposal. Its chances are far from certain, though a strongly conservative committee chairman, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, controls its first step.

State Democratic officials didn’t reply to requests for comment Friday, but online postings on the state party’s website decried the plan as a “vote-rigging scheme” and a means to “cheat” the vote in Republicans’ favor.

Two of the bill’s sponsors expressed a sunnier view in a December memorandum.

“The Congressional District Method will increase voter turnout and … give a stronger voice to voters in all regions of our great Commonwealth,” state representatives Robert Godshall, R-Hatfield, and Seth Grove, R-York, said.

Not all Republicans are on board. state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said that last year, when a similar proposal was raised in the state Senate, he didn’t join its supporters.

McGinnis also seemed wary of the plan.

The similar proposal last year didn’t go anywhere, Stern said, and it joined hundreds of proposals that Fleck said “slowly died” before being reintroduced with the new year.