If the Pennsylvania Senate holds hearings on changing how the state apportions its Electoral College votes, I'd like to suggest a witness: Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of A More Perfect Constitution.
For years, Sabato has studied the Electoral College and contemplated changes such as the one proposed by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. Under the plan, Pennsylvania would go from a winner-take-all approach to one that would award two electoral votes based on statewide results and its 18 others determined by the vote in each congressional district.
Sabato, a political scientist, brings no partisan or ideological objective to the controversy. His conclusion? Addressing Electoral College issues piecemeal is not in the national interest.
"You do not want an individual state, particularly a highly populated one like Pennsylvania, going off and freelancing and coming up with a separate system all by themselves," Sabato told me in an interview this week. "Because in any close election, that can make a difference, and they could end up electing another president who loses the popular vote, and that is not healthy for the country. Everyone agrees on that."
As we remember from high school civics, the founders' intent in creating the Electoral College was consistent with the blending of representation based on population and disbursement of power among the states. Though all members of Congress are elected by popular vote, states are assigned their delegations to the House of Representatives based on population; every state is afforded two U.S. senators. Presidential elections were seen as a hybrid of the two approaches. Namely, that the popular vote would determine the electors, who would in turn select the president.
"The founders wanted a screen between the people and selection of the president," Sabato told me. "We need to remember that at that time, many Americans were not educated, were illiterate, did not have ability to study issues, and were truly in the backwoods. And so the founders wanted a special elite, an Olympian elite to select the president at regular intervals."
The Constitution leaves it to the states to determine how their electoral votes will be allocated, and all but two use a winner-take-all system. If some Republicans get their way, Pennsylvania will go the way of Maine (in 1969) and Nebraska (in 1991). Sabato disapproves of that approach.
"I think it is wise to have a national policy," he says. "I think it is unfortunate that Maine and Nebraska have a different policy, but because they are so small there wasn't much [national] discussion of the effect of this policy. If, however, a large state like Pennsylvania went to a congressional district allocation scheme, it will have a major impact."
Sabato acknowledges the problem of a presidential candidate winning 45 percent of a state's popular vote but receiving no electoral votes. However, he thinks proponents of change are missing something: the effects of redistricting, which skews the popular vote.
Sabato illustrates his concern by pointing to Ohio, which he calls "as close to an evenly divided 50/50, superswing state" as you can find.
"But what is the redistricting plan for new House of Representatives [districts] starting in 2013?" he asks. "It's 12 Republicans and four Democrats. That's right. You would think it would be eight Republicans and eight Democrats, based on voting patterns."
And, he says, if that is the voting representation by electors, Ohio would always lean toward the GOP despite its even divide.
Further, if the Pennsylvania proposal had been in force during past elections, results could have been profoundly different. According to Sabato, John F. Kennedy would have lost decisively to Richard Nixon in 1960. In 1976, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter would have tied in the Electoral College despite the Democrat's 1.7 million-vote edge in popular votes.
"What you are going to produce if you go to this kind of system is far more cases of a president losing the popular vote but winning in the Electoral College," Sabato says. "Does anyone want to move in that direction? It is a formula for divisiveness."
Sabato is similarly pessimistic about a pure, national popular vote. He is concerned that what we saw in 2000 with the closeness of the race in Florida between George W. Bush and Al Gore could be replicated nationwide, and further complicated by the necessity of a national recount.
Sabato calls the current system "very much broken" but believes any changes should make it more representative of state population and thus less likely that someone wins without capturing the popular vote. His solution? Keep the Electoral College, but make it truly proportionate to the population, lifting it above the reapportionment process.
Hopefully, his view will be solicited before Pennsylvania commits itself to change.
Contact Michael Smerconish
Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.