The next time you go to the voting booth in Pennsylvania, the rules governing the outcome may well have changed.
Proposed House Bill No. 94 could completely transform the role of Pennsylvania’s representation in the Electoral College — the institution that directly elects the president and vice president of the United States. The number of electoral votes of each state is determined by combining the number of that state’s delegates in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
As the law currently stands, all of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate that wins the popular vote in the state. Should House Bill No. 94 be passed, however, only two electors would go to the candidate who carries the popular vote in the state, while the remaining electors would be assigned according to the candidate that carries each congressional district.
Pennsylvania would, therefore, see 18 of its 20 electoral votes delivered to the respective winners of the congressional districts. In addition, the boundaries of these districts would be altered by the passage of the bill.
This case of gerrymandering the congressional districts — manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan advantages — would help the Republican Party in the state.
“It is a fact that in Pennsylvania — as in many states with Republicans in control of the legislature — the state legislatures that draw the congressional districts have drawn [them] in ways that mean that Republicans can win a majority of the state’s congressional delegation even if they lose the popular vote statewide,” political science professor Rogers Smith said.
Therefore, House Bill No. 94 would provide a means by which a Republican candidate could lose the popular vote by a “reasonably large margin” and still win the majority of the state’s electoral votes.
“That is transparently the reason for this proposal,” Smith said.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science Jack Nagel bolstered Smith’s claim. “Even though Democrats carried [Pennsylvania] for Obama, their congressional candidates only won five of the 18 districts,” he said.
He added, “[This bill] is a flagrant violation of the principle of proportionality.”
Pennsylvania is not the only state to act on a bill of this nature. Both Maine and Nebraska currently have congressional district plans in place. According to political science professor and deputy director of elections at NBC John Lapinski, the difference lies in the fact that “Pennsylvania has a lot of Electoral College votes, and Maine and Nebraska have very few.”
Nagel similarly contends that a large state like Pennsylvania is much more likely to be crucial to the outcome of an election. The district plan “would negate the big-state advantage” and create a “small-state bias” instead, he said.
While House Bill No. 94 is not unprecedented, it is also not a nationwide initiative.
“The egregious thing about the Republican plan is that they don’t propose to adopt the district plan everywhere,” Nagel said. “They just want to do it in states that Democrats win and that [the Republicans] control in the legislature.”
According to Nagel, there are two big problems with the Electoral College that are not partisan but would be frustrated by the implementation of the district plan. One issue is the possibility of a “wrong winner” — as was the case in the 2000 presidential election — which would be more likely under the district plan. The district plan would also likely create a deadlock in the electoral college, where it is more probable that no majority of electoral votes would be reached.
State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the Republican Senate majority leader in Pennsylvania at the time, had previously proposed this plan in 2011. The bill failed to be enacted due to the immense controversy it espoused, among other issues.
According to Lapinski, though, there is a “decent probability” this bill could pass now. Pennsylvania currently has a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, indicating that though the timeline of the bill is as yet undefined and “there is no imminent rush,” there is also “no reason not to act on it now … Republicans are in a position of strength.”
Some student response reveals concern for the possible enactment of the proposed bill.
“It’s manipulative and unjust. It’s just a way to sway the votes in [Republicans’] favor,” College freshman Ariane Ordoobadi said.
“There has been a long history of manipulating voting rules to suppress the votes of your opponent,” Smith said. “This is one of the most naked efforts to do so that we’ve seen.”