Two proposals seek to change how Pennsylvania allocates its electoral votes

Posted: October 05, 2011

HARRISBURG - Two competing proposals to change the way Pennsylvania awards its 20 Electoral College votes in presidential elections took center stage in the Capitol on Tuesday.

In a hearing room at one end of the Capitol complex, witnesses testified on a plan advanced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) to replace the current winner-take-all system with one that awards Electoral College votes by congressional district.

Across the Capitol, political heavyweights Tom Golisano and Fred Thompson, a former U.S. senator, promoted a bill that would award Pennsylvania's electoral votes to the highest popular vote-getter.

On this much everyone agreed: The current system is flawed and should be fixed. There was little agreement on how.

Pileggi ignited the latest debate by suggesting Pennsylvania shift to a congressional-district voting model, one used by Maine and Nebraska.

The plan was immediately endorsed by Gov. Corbett, but just as swiftly opposed by other GOP leaders - including members of the state's Republican congressional delegation - and Democrats alike. Chief among concerns was that it would diminish Pennsylvania's clout in presidential elections.

Speaking before the Senate State Government Committee on Tuesday, Luke Bernstein, Corbett's deputy chief of staff, cast the proposal as an attempt to protect the integrity of individual votes.

He said the goal was to avoid effectively disenfranchising the millions of Pennsylvanians who vote for the losing candidate in presidential elections. It also would better reflect the state's regional and demographic diversity, Bernstein said.

"What is best in Scranton may not be best in Smethport; what is best in Erie may not be best in Ephrata; and what is best in Tamaqua may not be best in Ford City," Bernstein said. Allocating electoral votes by congressional district, he argued, "truly transforms a national election into a local neighborhood discussion, debate, discourse, and ultimately, a decision, as to who will best serve that area."

But State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the plan attempted to "disenfranchise Philadelphians."

"Not only would the proposed change to the Electoral College disproportionately affect the value of votes in the city of Philadelphia, it would ruin Pennsylvania's political clout on the national level," Williams said. "This is a blatant political power grab by Republican leadership."

While Pennsylvania has favored the Democrat in the last five presidential elections, it has yet to be stamped permanently blue.

In 2010, the tide shifted rightward as the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections went to the Republican candidate, and the Democrats lost the state House.

Two of the state's leading political scientists, Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College and Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College, said Pileggi's plan would reduce voter turnout and end Pennsylvania's status as a battleground state.

"No doubt we would lose overall impact as a competitive state," Madonna told the committee.

As witnesses testified on the Pileggi proposal, across the Capitol a well-funded group advocated an entirely different presidential voting idea.

The National Popular Vote group touts a system that it says is nonpartisan and would more equitably distribute state-by-state political influence if each state agreed to allocate its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide.

"Every vote does not count equally in the United States," said Golisano, the New York billionaire funding the group's ad campaign. "Candidates spent 98 percent of their time in 10 or 12 states, totally ignoring other states and that affects policy."

The National Popular Vote group has been pushing its plan in Harrisburg and other state capitals for years but is hoping to capitalize on the current debate to drum up support for bills sitting in the House and Senate. Eight state legislatures have endorsed the plan, including those in California, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), chairman of the State Government Committee, said he had no intention of advancing the popular-vote bill this fall and had not made up his mind on the Pileggi bill.

McIlhinney said he wanted to give the Pileggi bill "a fair shot," adding that he would gauge reaction in the Senate Republican caucus before bringing it up for a committee vote.

Spokesman Erik Arneson said Pileggi remained convinced that his proposal would more fairly allocate electoral votes based on the popular vote in Pennsylvania, and "he would like to see it advance this fall."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or

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