States changing the method that they use to allocate their electoral votes is as old as the country. It is not, as Rachel Maddow suggested last December, like “crossing a Rubicon that has never been crossed before.”
While Article II, Section 1 and the 12th Amendment describe the Electoral College’s structure and procedures, the Constitution leaves the selection method of the electors to the states (“Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature may direct”). As a result, it is perfectly legal for state politicians, such as Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, to propose and enact changes in a state’s selection method.
In fact, in the early Republic, selection methods varied widely. Some states delegated the presidential decision to state legislatures who selected the electors. In others, electors were chosen by the voters in either their congressional district or on a statewide basis.
Prior to the 1800 election, six of the 16 states changed their method of selection to ensure the majority party’s preferred presidential candidate won the maximum electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson even wrote to Virginia governor James Monroe, asking him to pursue a legislative change: “All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general: but while ten States choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly and worse than folly for the other six not to do it.”
Since the 1830s, most states have used a popular vote method and a winner-take-all electoral vote allocation. Currently, Maine and Nebraska are the only states that allocate their electoral votes by congressional district, meaning that the statewide winner receives the state’s two at-large electoral votes and each congressional district winner receives an additional vote. In 2008, Barack Obama won the second congressional district in Nebraska, which resulted in the first modern-day electoral vote split: four votes for John McCain and one for Obama.
While Democrats are now accusing Republicans in Pennsylvania and other states (e.g., Virginia, Wisconsin, and Michigan) of “rigging” the system and “cheating,” it wasn’t all that long ago that the Democrats were considering similar electoral vote reforms.
In 2004, Democrats placed an initiative on the general election ballot in Colorado to change to a proportional allocation method. And during the congressional session that followed Al Gore’s 537-vote loss in 2000 in Florida, which led to all of that state’s 25 electoral votes being awarded to George W. Bush, three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives (James Clyburn, Eliot Engel, and Bob Clement) introduced legislation to make the electoral votes in every state be awarded by the district method. Further, nearly half the states at the behest of Democrats considered altering their vote allocation method.
Simply put, parties are political and presidential elections are serious matters. No party likes losing a presidential election they believe they should have won. And every party will look for ways to tilt the game toward their favor in the next round.
Still, the present reform proposals are likely to go the way of the hundreds of others that have been considered since the 1960 election: nowhere. The one thing that will persist, however, is the unpopularity of the selection method among members of the losing party.
Lara M. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Her research interests include national elections, presidential aspirants, congressional incumbents, and political scandals.
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