In 1962, after the successive failures of both his presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, a weary Richard Nixon bid the press goodbye:
But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Of course, if Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi had his way, Nixon might not have spoken those famous words. He would not have had to: if Senator Pileggi had been in charge, Nixon might have beaten John F. Kennedy and become president in 1960.
I am referring, of course, to Senator Pileggi’s ill-conceived Electoral College plan (next session’s version, last session’s plan was defeated). The idea is simple: divide all but two of a state’ Electoral College votes up and award them to the candidates according to the percentage of the popular vote that they won. The candidate that wins the state then gets the extra two votes.
Take the 2012 election, for instance. President Barack Obama won about 52 percent of the popular vote to Governor Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. This gives President Obama 12 electoral votes (10 electoral votes for the popular vote, plus 2 more for winning state-wide).
This would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Indeed, changing Pennsylvania alone might not have altered the outcome of most American elections. But it would have had an effect. For instance, in 2000, President George W. Bush’s margin of victory would have been larger, even though he still would have lost the popular vote.
But to really demonstrate how Pileggi’s system would work, imagine that his plan was in effect in all 50 states. Under this scenario, John F. Kennedy stands a good chance of beating Nixon in the popular vote, but losing to him in the Electoral College.
According to my calculations, the Electoral College votes come in like this:
- 264 for Kennedy
- 267 for Nixon
- 6 Unpledged Electors
Those unpledged electors would have come from the largely Democratic Louisiana and Mississippi. But these states were part of the Southern, conservative wing of the Democratic Party — a wing that was suspicious of Kennedy and that Nixon would successfully court years later. It only would have taken 3 of those 6 to make Nixon president.
Can we say with absolute certainty that Kennedy would have absolutely lost in 1960? No. But it is surely a possibility. And a reason to be wary of any claims that Pileggi’s proposal is somehow fairer than the current system.
1960 Presidential Election Results: Pileggi Plan (Excel), Diniverse Major Blog.
Co-Sponsorship Memo, Dominic Pileggi.
“Pileggi to reintroduce plan to change Pennsylvania electoral-vote system,” Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Corbett-Pileggi plan bad for democracy,” Michael J. Gaudini (Main Line Times). *(This article refers to last session’s Electoral College plan)