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Some In GOP Want New Electoral College Rules

Not many Americans are fans of the Electoral College. But trying to change the way electoral votes are allocated makes lots of people unhappy, too.

That's what Republicans in a number of states are finding just now. There are a half-dozen states that President Obama carried last November where both the legislature and the governor's office are controlled by the GOP — Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia.

In most of those states, there are efforts under way to change how electoral votes are distributed.

"I think it's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at," Reince Priebus, who was just re-elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

A bill in Virginia might get a vote as early as next week. It would award most electoral votes by congressional district, setting aside two votes to be given to the candidate who carries the most districts in the commonwealth.

Currently, every state but Maine and Nebraska awards all its electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner.

If changes such as the Virginia bill had been in place last year, Obama would have won far fewer electoral votes. In Virginia, he would have taken four electoral votes rather than all 13.

Democrats therefore have characterized the Republican proposals as "sore loser" bills, an effort to game the system in states where their presidential candidates have struggled.

"They're trying to win by rigging the process," says Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "They seem consumed by this idea that they need to rig elections."

Republicans counter that changing the system could more accurately reflect the popular vote. Why should a candidate who carries a state with 51 percent of the vote get 100 percent of its electors?

"The goal is very simple," says Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pennsylvania Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi. "It's to more closely align the electoral vote in Pennsylvania with the popular vote."

Pileggi tried to switch to a system based on congressional district voting in time for the 2012 election. His new bill, which will be introduced next month, would award electoral votes based on popular-vote percentages.

Under this plan, Obama, who won 52 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania in November, would have gotten 52 percent of the state's electoral votes. (Rounding would favor the statewide winner.)

Pileggi offered these changes to answer criticism that awarding electoral votes by congressional district would unfairly reflect the partisan gerrymandering that is often a major factor in how district lines are drawn.

That's what has Democrats upset about proposals such as the one in Virginia. Democrats currently have an Electoral College advantage, thanks to their success in most of the large states.

Changing the current system would give a boost to Republicans. In many states, Democrats may carry the overall vote, but they tend to be concentrated in fewer, densely populated metropolitan areas. The GOP might dominate in more districts because its voters are more spread out.

"Distributing electoral votes by congressional district is a terrible idea," says George Edwards, a visiting professor of American government at Oxford University. "Such a system would have elected Mitt Romney, despite President Obama winning the popular vote by millions of votes."

Some Republicans have come out against the idea of tampering with electoral-vote allocation, out of concern that it might skew the outcome.

"To me, that's like saying in a football game, 'We should have only three quarters, because we were winning after three quarters and they beat us in the fourth,' " Will Weatherford, the Republican speaker of the Florida House, told the Tampa Bay Times. "I don't think we need to change the rules of the game, I think we need to get better."

Over the past few years, Democrats have sought to make their own electoral vote changes. Eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that would grant their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide.

"No matter where you land on the reforms, the current system is broken and has to be fixed," says Laura Brod, a consultant to the National Popular Vote Initiative.

The popular-vote laws would take effect only if states representing a majority of the electoral votes go along with the idea. So far, the effort is well short of that goal, with the nine jurisdictions representing 132 electoral votes.

It's possible that the GOP will fall short in its current efforts, as well.

"Nobody is satisfied with the current system," says Arneson, the Pennsylvania Senate aide, "and none of the alternatives have generated a consensus."

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Corrected: January 27, 2013 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Nebraska had never split its Electoral College votes. In fact, in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama was awarded an electoral vote though Sen. John McCain carried the state.
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.