John Baer: GOP's gerrymandering jihad against the blue-ish state

Posted: September 14, 2011

PENNSYLVANIA'S blue-state streak of delivering its electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates could end next year under a plan pushed by top state Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is seeking co-sponsors for a bill to award electoral votes by congressional district.

Currently, the state (like 48 others) has a winner-take-all system: The popular-vote winner gets all the state's electoral votes.

Pileggi, in a memo to colleagues, writes that his change "will more accurately reflect the preference of Pennsylvania voters."

It could be made by amending the state Election Code and passage by the House and Senate with Gov. Corbett's approval.

GOP leaders in both chambers say that they can pass it this fall. The governor this week said that he'd sign it.

This is a prime-time example of power politics by those in power.

After congressional reapportionment this year - done by the Republican-controlled Legislature - the state will have 20 electoral votes.

No large state has the system Pileggi proposes. States that do are Nebraska (38th in population with 1.8 million) and Maine (41st the population with 1.3 million).

California Republicans tried a similar move in 2007 but it failed in a Democratic-controlled legislature.

The change here could significantly impact national politics and the amount of attention Pennsylvania gets in next year's election.

Roughly half of what will be 18 congressional districts next year (a state's electoral vote total is equal to the number of congressional districts plus its two U.S. senators) cover rural Republican areas.

Odds, therefore, that the state extends its now five-cycle streak of delivering all its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate are longer than long.

In addition, the state would be politically devalued, no longer a top prize in national elections.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn says that the Pileggi move is another in a series of attempts to diminish the Democrats' one-million voter-registration edge.

He notes that the GOP also is pushing legislation requiring voter photo IDs, which he says can reduce turnout among poorer and elderly voters - especially in urban areas - who tend to vote Democratic.

That bill passed the House, 108-88, in June and awaits Senate action.

(I've questioned motives behind this legislation. It's passed off as addressing fraud in a state where officials found four cases in 2010. Also, to the argument that one needs a photo ID to drive a car, get on a plane or open a bank account, those are privileges. Voting is a right. There's a difference.)

As to the Pileggi plan, I chatted with Alexander Belenky, a visiting scholar at MIT working on his fourth book on the Electoral College.

"It makes no sense because of gerrymandering," Belenky says. He contends that it could work nationally, simply turning "battleground states into battleground districts." But in Pennsylvania, where districts are carved up to favor one party or the other, all it does, he says, is guarantee a Republican candidate "some chunk" of the electoral vote.

Pileggi yesterday stuck to his guns: "My focus is on trying to have individual votes more accurately reflected . . . there are, apparently, an unlimited number of political scientists commenting on other things that may happen, and some of them may even be accurate." But he says that the concept "works both ways," in that a GOP candidate carrying the state also would share electoral votes.

Pileggi expects a public hearing on his bill in early October and hopes for passage in time for next year's election.

That could make Democrats blue, and Pennsylvania less so.


For recent columns, go to

philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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