Timing is Everything

One of my goals as chair of the Senate State Government Committee has been – and continues to be:  improving Pennsylvania’s electoral processes.  The right to vote is one of the most emphasized guarantees of our US Constitution.  Four separate amendments specifically state the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged.”

The Committee held a number of hearings in 2017 and more are planned for 2018.  We’ve also reported several election-related bills to the full Senate for consideration.

Not surprisingly, interest in elections has greatly increased since the 2016 Presidential Election when 58% of registered voters actually voted (68% in Pennsylvania).  At the same time, perspectives on elections has shifted.  I guess timing is everything.

In 2013, I cosponsored legislation to change how Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes are awarded.  The Electoral College was established by Article II of the US Constitution and was revised by the 12th, 14th, and 23rd Amendments.  Its original purpose was to protect minority interests – smaller states feared their voices would be drowned out by bigger states.

Prior to the Election of 1800, electors were chosen within each state by Congressional District.  In 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson received eight of Pennsylvania’s 15 Electoral College votes and President John Adams received the remaining seven.

While Jefferson received more electoral votes nationally than Adams, he and his Vice Presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, tied in the Electoral College; it took the US House of Representatives 36 tries to make Jefferson President and Burr Vice President.  Afterwards, the 12th Amendment was adopted to require separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President.  At the same time, states began to change how their delegates were chosen.

The Constitution leaves to the states how electors are selected:  “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.”  Unlike amendments to the US Constitution, which require two-thirds approval in both houses of Congress plus approval by 38 states, states decide and can change how they award Electoral College votes whenever they want.

After the Election of 1800, states began to move away from proportional voting to “winner take all.”  By 1836, all states were using winner take all (although Maine and Nebraska returned to proportional voting in 1969 and 1991).

The 2013 bill I supported would have returned Pennsylvania to proportional Electoral College voting by Congressional District.  I believed this change would have increased voter turnout as political minorities would again believe their votes mattered (i.e., rural areas thinking urban areas make their votes meaningless).

However, opponents of proportional voting by Congressional District were strident.  They said it was just a backdoor effort to inject partisanship into Pennsylvania’s Presidential Elections.  They added proportional voting would make a complicated system even more complicated, further reducing voter interest and voter turnout.

The bill’s opponents prevailed as it never moved and it hasn’t been reintroduced.  But today, some of those who opposed that legislation are now calling for changes in the Electoral College – including moving away from winner take all.  I wonder why?

I guess timing is everything.