big questions politics

A Case For The Electoral College

I’m going to admit something upfront: I’m not any specific expert on our political system. The California school system has a reputation for not being the best in the country, and that’s been my entire educational experience. (Well, that and being one of those people that’s spent hours at a time scrolling through Wikipedia, checking some sources as I go.) So, everything I say here should be taken with a spoonful of salt. But I’ll cite my sources where I feel them necessary, and hopefully what I have to type will have some merit.

This post is going to be about elections. I’ll do my best to keep my statistics correct and searchable, and my opinions measured until it’s time for me to weigh in. This isn’t meant to be a partisan post, only a response after one of the most contentious elections in presidential history (and to be blunt, the most divisive in my lifetime). More than that, this is meant to be informational without being pretentious; understandable without insulting anyone at all. After everything I think it’s time for a little cold water and context. After educating myself a bit, I thought I might add my thoughts into the heated discussion.

So, let’s have a conversation about the Electoral College and why it’s important… and what I think would make it better. (Hint: It’s a simple solution that won’t work.)

The results of the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump is represented in red, Hillary Clinton in blue. (Image is Wikipedia's, not mine.)
The results of the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump is represented in red, Hillary Clinton in blue. (Image is Wikipedia’s, not mine.)

What you’re looking at above is how Donald Trump won the election: he carried 30 states, plus the 2nd district of Maine, while Hillary carried 19 states, the rest of Maine (so technically twenty), and DC. She won her electoral votes with a higher percentage than Trump won his, and with it she won the majority of the population. By roughly 2 million votes, as of the time I’m writing this.

In response, I’ve seen a lot of my left-leaning friends claiming not only that we need to abolish the Electoral College (which will be abbreviated EC from here) entirely, since it didn’t accurately respect the will of the people directly. And my right-leaning friends telling those left-leaning friends to “get over it, this is our system”. It’s not like their fellow party members haven’t responded negatively to elections before, like the open protests and negative reports (i.e. all of Fox News) after Obama’s election and inauguration. I even remember, in 2009, I was working a job where I had to go to the post office and both drop off and pick up mail, and multiple times in the first few months of that year I saw people sitting outside that office with a massive image of the new President… complete with Hitler mustache.

The guy hadn’t even done anything yet. The point being, overreactions happen on both sides. I’m not justifying that. But, what I can do is say how I would like the system to be better. And for that we need context.

The System As It Is

The EC itself is actually fairly straightforward: in a nutshell, every state has at least three EC votes, one for each representative sent to the US congress. Each state has an equal number of Senators (2), and each House seat is a representation of roughly 700,000 citizens in each state. For a small population like Wyoming there’s one House Rep as they have roughly 600,000 citizens while California, with a population of about 39 million, has 53 districts and 53 Representatives. And it’s the combination of those representatives that actually elects the President of the United States.

Which means the USA isn’t a true dyed-in-the-wool democracy. We’re a Democratic-Republic – we elect people to help elect for us. The people who want to remove the EC either don’t realize this, or think it’s time to change it. Maybe both.

The POTUS-elect is chosen when one candidate reaches 270 of those votes. There are a total of 538 possible, meaning there’s technically a chance for a tie at 269 where neither is chosen, and would then be chosen by the majority in the House of Representatives who would likely vote however their states went. This hasn’t happened since 1824, when we elected John Quincy Adams. It’s not very likely to happen again, at least until and unless a third party can break through in American politics. (No third-party candidate has even earned an electoral vote in a major election since George Wallace ran as an American Independent in 1968, when he won 46 and carried five states. Nixon still blew him out of the water winning 301 EC votes.)

Each state (with two exceptions that we’ll get to later) are “all-or-nothing” states, meaning whomever wins the PV of that state will take all of their EC votes. So for example, Pennsylvania was won by Trump, who took 48.8% of the vote to Clinton’s 47.6%. A difference of about 80,000 total PV. Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, which means for the nearly 6 million that votes there, it was those 80,000 that determined the 20 elective representatives were voting for Trump in the EC. In similar races, Clinton won Colorado’s 9 EC votes via winning by about 140,000 votes, Trump won North Carolina’s 15 EC votes by 175,000, and so on.

The two exceptions are of Maine and Nebraska, both of which have some rules about splitting their votes. I could only find two instances of this occurring, one for each state: Trump won Maine’s 2nd district for one vote in this most recent election, and Barack Obama winning Nebraska’s 2nd district in his victory in 2008. Otherwise, all EC votes they’re all a win or a loss state-wide.

The Popular Vote

The popular vote (abbreviated from here on as PV) is usually what elects the next POTUS, as there’s rarely an instance where a candidate wins by overall smaller margins in their victory states than they lost in the others. So far, only five times has a POTUS been elected with a smaller PV, and two of those has been in the past 16 years: Gore won the PV in 2000 by about a half-million and Bush crossed the 270 mark by a single vote, and Trump in 2016 losing by over 2 million to win by over 70 EC votes. And it’s that last part that, I imagine, is what is rubbing people the wrong way.

Taking the system as it is, looking at the two numbers, they don’t seem to work; how could Hillary win by so much and yet end up the loser? Because a win of 51/49 means the same to the college than a 75/25 blowout. The people may feel as though their will isn’t being heard, but it is — just not by one collective voice.

The other times something like this happened have been interesting scenarios themselves. In 1824 for example (the only time the House voted for POTUS in place of the people), Andrew Jackson won the PV by over 40,000 votes. Sounds close, but it was out of a grand total of 264,393 votes cast, meaning Jackson won by ten points. But, there were four men running in that race, which meant everyone was well short of the necessary 131 EC votes (Jackson had won 99 of them). The other three elections, the PV simply lost to the number of states and EC votes – about 254,000 out of 8.3 million in 1876, 90,000 in 1888, and 543,000 out of about 101 million in 2000. All within three percentage points.

The 2.3 million or so Clinton won the PV by in 2016 was about 1.6% of the votes cast. It sounds like a lot, but that’s out of about 127 million votes cast. It’s a lot closer than the loudest voices on the left want to admit.

So What Can Be Done?

I’d prefer, instead of abolishing the EC altogether, simply making the system more representative overall – for national elections – would be the right step forward. And the way to do that would be to respect each district as a single voice instead of each state as a whole; maybe winning each state would net the two Senator votes, but the rest would divvy up the remaining representative votes.

Again, each district that sends a representative to the Congress is made up of roughly 700,000 people, which is not an insignificant number. And with the variation that can happen between populations within a single state, this can truly represent the people’s will more fully, and make third-party candidates actually have a shot at being represented in the overall electorate. For example, a candidate like Evan McMullen earned 21% of the vote in Utah, which may have been the deciding factor for the two districts that voted for Clinton there. Trump still one the state outright, but if the state had split the collective votes according to their House of Representatives, Trump may have taken five EC votes instead of the six he won for the state as a whole.

This would affect every state, including my home state of California; rural and Southern sections of my state tend to tilt red while my beloved San Francisco Bay Area is predominantly blue, meaning Trump would have won a few of CA’s 55 EC votes. This also means that a state like Georgia may have earned Clinton some supporting votes, with her strong showing in the Atlanta area. This does work both ways, with both rural and urban/suburban areas having an equal say in the overall process, and breaking up massive chunks like New York and Mississippi into more competitive, representative chunks.

I don’t see such a change happening any time soon, but with the second election resolved by the EC and not both the EC and PV inside of five elections and 16 years, it’s an interesting proposition. One reason it likely hasn’t changed is because of our large population; again, over 120 million votes were cast in the last election, and there are roughly 325 million citizens overall. With so many people, it’s more than a little unwieldy to break down an election like I just have. The current system functions, it’s “representative enough” for most people, and it could lead to a situation like we saw in 1824 should so many people run for office.

That last bit is a pretty damn good reason, too — if lots of candidates run, lots of districts could go for either someone local, someone minor, and the two “big ticket” candidates could both not reach the 270 mark (or whatever an equivalent in such an overhauled system would be.

So then… what’s the answer? What’s the best way to change this system, or should we keep it as-is for future elections? This isn’t a rhetorical question, I’d love to hear some real answers, so if you have one I look forward to reading it in comments.

Stand Tall, my friends. Do your homework and vote, because as we’ve learned from this most recent election that votes do matter… even if it appears the popular votes doesn’t always win out.