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GOP plan could jeopardize Pennsylvania's political clout

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By Mike Wereschagin and Brad Bumsted
Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011

Republicans in charge of the General Assembly want to change how the state hands out its electoral votes, a move that could reshape the national electoral strategies of future presidents and diminish Pennsylvania's role in choosing the country's leader.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi wants to allocate the 20 electoral votes Pennsylvania will have in the next election according to who wins each of 18 congressional districts, plus two more for whoever wins the statewide popular vote, rather than the winner-take-all system the state now uses.

Pileggi said the new formula would better reflect what voters want.

In 2008, for instance, when Pennsylvania had 21 electoral votes, Sen. John McCain won 10 congressional districts to then-Sen. Barack Obama's 9, but Obama won the state by 620,000 votes. Under Pileggi's proposal, Obama would've gotten the two statewide electors, for a net win over McCain of one electoral vote.

But with that smaller margin would come less influence, said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Presidential elections are decided by "basically Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Florida," because each is a swing state with a large block of electoral votes up for grabs.

"That gives us tremendous clout when the governor of Pennsylvania asks" the president or Congress for something, such as disaster recovery aid, Rendell said. If the disaster's cost is close to what qualifies the state for federal aid, its electoral votes tip the balance in its favor, he said.

"For us to unilaterally disarm by going to congressional districts makes no sense at all."

Some analysts said it wouldn't be worth it for campaigns to spend much time or cash in Pennsylvania for a gain of three or four electoral votes. Only Maine and Nebraska allocate electoral votes by congressional district.

"It sure would hurt the television advertising in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia television markets," said Democratic consultant Steve Murphy, who worked on former Rep. Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign.

Asked whether Pileggi's proposal would change Pennsylvania's status as one of the country's biggest swing states, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said, "There's no doubt about it."

Still, he's a fan.

"We think it has a lot of positive merit," said Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. "It's going to be carefully vetted (in the Senate). I myself am very positive."

Others, not so much.

"It's crazy," said Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York. "If every state did this, there's an argument could be made that it would mean better grassroots politics. For us alone to do it is insane."

The proposal was made as the Republicans -- who control the House, Senate and executive branch -- prepare to redraw the state's congressional district boundaries, deciding how many Democrat and Republican voters will be in each. The districts must be redrawn because the state is losing a district based on national population figures.

"I do think it will raise some eyebrows in the state, particularly among independent voters," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "I can see the argument being made and a lot of voters questioning whether this is a sellout for partisan interests."

However, Borick said he understands the argument of Republicans who would say they had voted for a Republican candidate in five straight presidential elections and didn't have a single electoral vote cast for their candidate.

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