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February 4, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Pennsylvanians shouldn’t be fooled by electoral hijinks

NEW CASTLE — Back in the 2000 presidential election, Americans received a civics lesson of sorts.

Much of it involved obscure terms such as hanging and dimpled chads, as well as butterfly ballots. All of this, of course, came courtesy of Florida, whose clumsy election efforts produced an extended period of uncertainty in the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Bush eventually was declared the winner of the election, courtesy of a Supreme Court ruling in his favor. But when all the dust — and chads — settled, Gore won the popular vote while Bush won the White House.

This occurred because Bush captured the most votes nationally in the Electoral College, which actually selects the president. Each state names electors to cast votes for president. The number of electors in a state is the total of its members in the House and Senate.

In most states, the Electoral College is a winner-take-all situation. Because Bush won Florida by a handful of popular votes, he succeeded in capturing all the state’s electoral votes. That put Bush ahead of Gore in the electoral contest.

While this isn’t the first time in American history that the winner of the popular vote failed to win the electoral vote, the 2000 results prompted many Democrats to push for reforms. Specifically, they wanted the Electoral College abolished and replaced with a presidential selection process based strictly on popular vote.

But that effort faded, because doing away with the Electoral College would involve amending a Constitution. In a nation that strives for instant gratification, that’s too much like work.

But suddenly, the Electoral College is a hot topic again. But this time, it’s Republicans who are demanding changes. But rather than amending the Constitution, they are trying to do it state by state.

The Constitution allows states to determine the specific method of awarding electoral votes, and a move is afoot in certain states to effectively split those votes between the candidates.

One Republican plan in Pennsylvania, for instance, would have given most of the commonwealth’s electoral votes to Mitt Romney in 2012, even though Barack Obama won the state’s popular vote.

GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere say their goal is to create fairness in the presidential election process and give more people a voice. But let’s be blunt: This is a raw political move; an attempt to thwart a general Democratic trend in some key states.

And Republicans would do this by damaging their own states. Pennsylvania, for instance, is a competitive state where Republicans and Democrats vie for a big electoral prize. But if the electoral vote is divided, the value of campaigning in the commonwealth fades. Pennsylvania wouldn’t matter much in the presidential contest.

Politicians who say they want to make the presidential selection process fairer and more reflective of popular sentiment already have a means of doing so. Some states have agreed to participate in a compact to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have agreed to join this compact.

This compact would take effect only when states representing a majority of electoral votes join. It would be a nonpartisan way to ensure the candidate who wins the presidency is the one who captures the most voter support.

This is a reform that takes no sides and favors no party. Anything else is a gimmick.

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