HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republicans in Pennsylvania and Nebraska want to change the way their states award Electoral College votes, moves that could hinder President Barack Obama's re-election chances.
Lawmakers in the Democratic-leaning battleground of Pennsylvania are weighing whether to give the presidential nominees one electoral vote for each congressional district they win, rather than giving all its votes to the candidate who wins the state's popular vote, like Obama did in 2008. In GOP-tilting Nebraska, lawmakers want to go to a winner-take-all system four years after Obama won the 2nd Congressional District and its single electoral college vote.
It takes 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency out of 538 up for grabs. Every vote matters in a close election and every sign points to a competitive 2012 race as an incumbent Democratic president who most people still personally like tries to win a second term in tough economic times.
"Any electoral vote is important in these elections," said Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. "When you start dealing with large states, it can make a difference. And also you're not just dealing with Pennsylvania; other states may follow suit."
The changes Republicans in Pennsylvania and Nebraska are trying to make likely would give the eventual GOP nominee an advantage by shifting the voting power from more liberal, predominantly Democratic cities in both states, to more conservative rural and suburban areas that tend to favor Republicans.
Not that GOP officials will acknowledge that their goal is to help a Republican win the White House. Rather, they talk about fairness.
"The people in many parts of the state, they haven't been represented because of the huge turnout, and you know there's going to be a huge Democratic turnout in Philadelphia," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who supports the proposal, said recently.
Pennsylvania, a Rust Belt state with a Democratic tilt thanks to its big cities and entrenched labor unions, is one of 48 states that give all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote.
But Republicans who now control the capitol in that state — where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 4 to 3 — are considering a proposal to scrap the state's winner-take-all system of awarding its 20 electoral votes to one candidate. They would replace it with a system in which presidential candidates are awarded electoral votes based on how many of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts they win. Two of the 20 electoral votes would go to the winner of the popular vote.
In theory, that would give Republicans a better chance to win electoral votes because many congressional districts in Pennsylvania are designed to lean conservative. A Republican hasn't won an electoral vote in Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush won the state's popular vote in 1988. But under the scenario, a Republican who loses the popular vote could still win more than half of Pennsylvania's electoral votes.
Corbett supports the measure and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is pushing it, insisting: "My focus and the intent of my bill is simply to more closely align the electoral college vote with the popular vote in the state for president."
The Senate State Government Committee held a hearing on the measure Tuesday, but the committee chairman, Sen. Charles McIlhinney, said afterward that the chamber's Republican majority must decide whether to vote the bill out of committee and then send it to the House. He said Corbett would need to sign it by mid-December to affect next year's election.
Republicans in the state are divided over the change, partly because it could backfire. Critics, including the state GOP chairman, worry that it could end up costing electoral votes if the Republican presidential nominee wins the popular vote. They also are concerned that Democrats could target their resources and pick up congressional seats in several swing-voting districts around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
"If Pennsylvania were to pass it, you can bet that other states would start looking at it harder," said Tim Storey of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Most state legislatures are adjourned for the year, but Storey said a legislature could return in January or February and act in time to affect the 2012 election.
In Nebraska, lawmakers are expected to take up a measure in January to switch the state to a winner-take-all system. Under the state's current law, candidates win an electoral vote for each of Nebraska's three congressional districts that they carry. The state's other two electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote.
Republicans — who control the Legislature and governor's office — were compelled to make the change after Obama won one of the state's five electoral votes in 2008, the first split under a 1991 Nebraska law that Republicans have long loathed. Before Obama in 2008, the last Democrat to win an electoral vote in Nebraska was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Republicans say Nebraska's current system divides its urban and rural residents and minimizes the state's overall influence in presidential contests.
This year, Nebraska Republicans appear to stand solidly behind the move, with the state party taking a pointed stance: Its central committee threatens to pass a resolution threatening to pull support for any state lawmaker who opposes the winner-take-all proposal.
"It's time that we return to a fair system that does not divide Nebraskans based upon where they happen to live," state GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson said.
Beck reported from Omaha, Neb.