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Will GOP's PA Coup Backfire?

There is simply no end to Republicans screwing around with election laws to gain political advantage at every opportunity. The latest GOP scam, well-reported in Mother Jones by Nick Baumann, has Pennsylvania Republicans planning to do away with the state's winner-take-all electoral vote allocation, and replace it with a congressional district-based allocation system. The goal, of course, is to dilute the electoral power of a pivotal state that awarded its 21 electoral votes to Senator Obama in 2008. As Baumann explains:

The problem for Obama, and the opportunity for Republicans, is the electoral college. Every political junkie knows that the presidential election isn't a truly national contest; it's a state-by-state fight, and each state is worth a number of electoral votes equal to the size of the state's congressional delegation. (The District of Columbia also gets three votes.) There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs; win 270, and you're the president.

Here's the rub, though: Each state gets to determine how its electoral votes are allocated. Currently, 48 states and DC use a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of its electoral votes. Under the Republican plan--which has been endorsed by top GOPers in both houses of the state Legislature, as well as the governor, Tom Corbett--Pennsylvania would change from this system to one where each congressional district gets its own electoral vote. (Two electoral votes--one for each of the state's two senators--would go to the statewide winner.)

This could cost Obama dearly. The GOP controls both houses of the state Legislature plus the governor's mansion--the so-called "redistricting trifecta"--in Pennsylvania. Congressional district maps are adjusted after every census, and the last one just finished up. That means Pennsylvania Republicans get to draw the boundaries of the state's congressional districts without any input from Democrats. Some of the early maps have leaked to the press, and Democrats expect that the Pennsylvania congressional map for the 2012 elections will have 12 safe GOP seats compared to just 6 safe Democratic seats.

Cute, huh? Baumann fleshes out the scam:

Under the Republican plan, if the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight--six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for winning the state. Since Obama would lose 12 electoral votes relative to the winner-take-all baseline, this would have an effect equivalent to flipping a medium-size winner-take-all state--say, Washington, which has 12 electoral votes--from blue to red.* And Republicans wouldn't even have to do any extra campaigning or spend any extra advertising dollars to do it.

If the president wins the states John Kerry won in 2004 plus Ohio--otherwise enough to give him a narrow win--changing the electoral vote rules in Pennsylvania alone would swing the election to the Republican nominee.

Former PA Governor Ed Rendell says Dems should file a lawsuit against the measure, if it is enacted. But The GOP plan may be legit within the parameters of the Constitution, according to law professor Karl Manheim, quoted in Baumann's article. "The Constitution is pretty silent on how the electors are chosen in each state," says Manheim, adding that the Republican plan "would certainly increase the political advantage of politically gerrymandering your districts."

Worse, the time seems ripe for Republican electoral vote manipulation to spread, as Baumann reports:

...After their epic sweep of state legislative and gubernatorial races in 2010, Republicans also have total political control of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three other big states that traditionally go Democratic and went for Obama in 2008.* Implementing a Pennsylvania-style system in those three places--in Ohio, for example, Democrats anticipate controlling just 4 or 5 of the state's 16 congressional districts--could offset Obama wins in states where he has expanded the electoral map, like Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, or Virginia. "If all these Rust Belt folks get together and make this happen, that could be really dramatic," says Carolyn Fiddler, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which coordinates state political races for the Dems.

Chris Bowers reports at Daily Kos that Republicans are taking the opposite tack in Nebraska -- changing to a winner-take-all electoral vote system to benefit their party's candidate. (In 2008, Obama picked off one of Nebraska's five electoral votes).

Fiddler adds: "This would effectively extend the effect of gerrymandering beyond Congress and to the Electoral College. State legislatures could gerrymander the Electoral College." John Fortier, an electoral college expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Reuters, "It would be harder for Democrats to win in a close election if this goes through."

Baumann doesn't discuss what could happen in the event of an anti-incumbent sweep next November. If fed-up voters give Republicans control of the Senate and Democrats control of the House, it's possible the GOP manipulations could backfire, as Democrats take back districts now held by the GOP. But Republican gerrymandering in place would offset the effects of an anti-incumbent sweep to some extent.

Another backfire scenario would occur if Republicans win a majority of PA votes, and Dems hold some districts and get a chunk of PA's electoral votes. "Despite Obama's easy win in Pennsylvania three years ago, he is now broadly unpopular there, with 52 percent of Pennsylvanians saying he doesn't deserve reelection in a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll.," reports Aaron Blake in WaPo's The Fix.

It's a gamble, but it looks like one the PA Republicans like, since they haven't won any of the state's electoral votes since 1988. The National Popular Vote Compact probably won't be in place in time to offset the electoral vote shenanigans for 2012. But the GOP's manipulation of election laws certainly underscores the importance of the compact as a potential remedy leading to direct popular election of the president down the road.

After the 2000 fiasco, many called for direct popular election of the President of the United States, but the calls for reform faded out. It's even more clear today, however, that it is the only way to permanently put an end to the GOP's campaign to undercut the will of the people in electing our President. It should be a top priority the next time Dems get the votes to make it happen.