Making Pa. votes matter

Posted: December 11, 2012

By Rob Richie

and Devin McCarthy

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi piqued our interest last week when he told Bloomberg that his new electoral reform proposal "is not party-specific or partisan in any way, but just an attempt to have the popular vote reflected." Pennsylvanians' votes certainly weren't reflected after a majority of them chose Democratic House candidates last month. In a remarkable distortion of voter preference, Republicans won 13 of the state's 18 House seats.

But Pileggi (R., Delaware) was proposing Electoral College reform. Like most of the states, Pennsylvania awards all its electoral votes to the statewide popular-vote winner. Pileggi proposes that most of the state's electoral votes instead be allocated in proportion to the popular vote, which would have given President Obama 12 of them - rather than the 20 he got - and Mitt Romney eight.

This plan is problematic, especially if the state pursues it unilaterally. First, although Pennsylvania is poised to be a swing state again in 2016, Pileggi's proposal would condemn it to spectator status, because campaigning would be able to affect no more than three of its electoral votes. Furthermore, the plan will be fought furiously as a partisan power grab; Republicans haven't won Pennsylvania or any of its electoral votes since 1988, but this would assure them at least eight.

Pennsylvania should instead join the National Popular Vote compact, under which New Jersey and other states have agreed to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The agreement takes effect only if states representing a majority of electoral votes sign on, and Pennsylvania could provide a huge boost toward reaching that threshold.

Guaranteeing the election of the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states, this plan is truly nonpartisan. It would ensure that voters in Pennsylvania and other states matter in every election.

A House distorted

Meanwhile, it's in congressional elections that proportional representation is really needed. It's absurd that Democratic House candidates won 51 percent of Pennsylvanians' votes but only 28 percent of seats. But such distortions occur around the nation - ranging from Republicans' losing all 21 House races in New England to Democrats' losing all 22 districts in the states stretching from Arkansas to Idaho, despite the presence of substantial political minorities in those areas.

Gerrymandering of districts is part of the problem, and Pennsylvania is a classic example. But even in 2010, before the current, badly gerrymandered congressional districts were drawn, Pennsylvania Democrats won only 37 percent of the seats despite drawing 48 percent of the votes, primarily because of their concentration in cities.

The greater problem is the winner-take-all rule that Pileggi wants to eliminate for the allocation of electoral votes - that is, 51 percent of the voters can elect 100 percent of a congressional district's representation. Winner-take-all distorts representation and leaves most voters in no-choice elections.

Proven reforms

A simple reform would enable proportional representation in Congress, using constitutional methods and models that have been proven in state and local elections. It would replace single-member districts with larger "super-districts" electing up to five representatives each. That would allow like-minded voters to pool their votes and elect representatives in numbers that reflect their voting strength. One such system already prevents any party from monopolizing Pennsylvania's county commissions or Philadelphia City Council.

The system we prefer is choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, and third. A candidate could win one of three seats with the support of about a third of voters. Winning more than half the vote would count for two seats. And winning a seat in a five-seat district would take about a fifth of the vote.

Our proposal for Pennsylvania's congressional elections would create four super-districts, with the same number of people per representative. Three districts would have five seats, and one would have three. Supporters of both major parties would have the power to elect one or more candidates in each district, as is the case with all the super-districts we drew nationwide. Democrats and Republicans would be favored to win at least eight seats each in Pennsylvania, reflecting the state's political balance. Voters would be able to vote for different candidates of the same party as well as for independents and minor-party candidates.

This reform would require Congress to repeal a 1967 law requiring one-seat districts. But Pennsylvania could adopt it for state legislative elections immediately.

Our government was founded on the principle of consent of the governed. Let's reject the distortions and disenfranchisement of winner-take-all elections and put voters in charge of their representation.


Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization, where Devin McCarthy is a democracy fellow. For more information about their proposals, see www.fairvoting.us.

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