Electoral College Considerations
So the day is here. Electoral College Voting Day! The day the President is actually elected. A lot of people have been looking forward to (or dreading) today this year. This is weird, because normally we don’t even think about it. The election is all over in our minds. This time around, there’s a lot of information and opinions out there, of varying degrees of reliability and veracity.
So, I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion: We’re not getting rid of the Electoral College, and we don’t want to.
Let me say in the beginning: that there is actually a third option here. Still, I want to really hit why we can’t/won’t get rid of the electoral college outright any time even sort of soon.
I wasn’t always a fan of the Electoral College. From my early teens up until five or so years ago, I was all about getting rid of the old thing. Why, I asked myself, and anyone dumb or tolerant enough to discuss politics with a teenager, shouldn’t every vote count equally? What’s the point of this antiquated system from way back when people had to send representative or ride a horse thousands of miles in the modern world?
Eventually, as I learned more about the Electoral College, I changed my mind–for several reasons.
Let’s not beat around the bush, here: The biggest reason not to push to get rid of the Electoral College, or push for it, is that it’s definitely, absolutely, totally never going to happen.
What the Electoral College is, and what we would need to do to get rid of it:
The Electoral College is a process for selecting the President of the United States of America. It gives each state two votes, one for each Senator, and then one vote for each Congressional District. Exactly how the states enforce these rules is up to them.
Forty-eight states are winner-take-all, which means all their electors are bound to vote for the winner of the state popular vote. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, award their two Senatorial votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and then each Congressional vote by the popular vote results from that district. Additionally, states have variable rules for whether their electors are bound or not, meaning in some cases electors can refuse to vote for the winner of their state, and in some cases they can’t.
Since states control how the electors cast their electoral votes, in theory, each state could pass a law saying their electoral votes would always be cast for the national popular vote winner . . . but why would they? Doing so could only reduce the influence of their citizens in Presidential elections.
Right now, those states with statewide popular have the closest thing possible under the US Constitution to direct popular votes. There is no upside, from the perspective of majority of the population of any state, to have electoral votes determined by the desires of people in other states.
Okay, so that’s out. What about just getting rid of the Electoral College entirely?
Well, here’s the thing: The Electoral College is part of the Constitution, and can only be overridden by a Constitutional Amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote from the US Congress (people elected to represent the interests of their state at the national level), and then approval by three-quarters of state legislatures (or state conventions for that purpose). And, as we’ve already discussed, the majority of states have absolutely no reason whatsoever to do this. A concerted effort might, possibly, flip a few states into this category, but certainly not enough to reach the minimum current number of thirty-eight(!) to actually change the Constitution.
So the biggest reason not to waste a bunch of time, money, and effort trying to remove the Electoral College is that the only way to do succeed would be to convince the people of thirty-eight states to vote against their own self-interest. And thinking that’s going to happen is as brainless as it gets.
Why we don’t actually want to get rid of the Electoral College, anyway:
I was in favor of this for a long time, as I mentioned. I still think there’s a lot of merit in the idea of one person, one vote. I wouldn’t kick and scream and cry if we replaced it the Electoral College with a direct popular vote. That said, if we refuse to acknowledge or examine the advantages of the Electoral College system, we can’t hope to arrive at an ideal solution. The hardest and most important thing is to be intellectually honest with ourselves, in spite of our internal biases, so that we can do what is best for the country, rather than what we wish was best for the country.
The thing is, there are some real advantages to the Electoral College. I’m going to start with the common argument, and I’m going to take it step further.
Wider Campaign Appeals
This is the big one you see all over the place. Because the Electoral College is the average of the popular votes of every state, or close to it, it creates an electoral environment where politicians don’t just have to craft messages that appeal to the majority of total voters . . . they have to craft messages that appeal to the majority of Americans in the majority of states. Now, sometimes that means we don’t get a result that matches the popular vote, but what we get, instead, is a candidate who better represents the nation as a whole.
One thing that’s forgotten about the other time the Electoral College overrode the popular vote in recent history, Bush vs. Gore, is that Gore didn’t just lose because he lost Florida. He lost because he, like Hillary Clinton, lost a couple of states (New Hampshire and West Virginia) that were passed over on campaign because they were assumed to be safe Democrat votes. In theme, Hillary lost, among many, many, other reasons, because she barely campaigned in a couple of “safe” states, and, as the Electoral College is designed to do, she was punished for failing to represent the people of those states, and their interests.
I can already see you typing, “GWB and Trump don’t represent my America.”
Okay, well, you need to get out there and convince more Americans that they want their America to be your America.
Preventing runaway populism and regional coalitions.
Okay, this one doesn’t seem to match up with the current results, but the truth is, the Electoral College does do a pretty good job in this respect. The times the system has broken down have been associated with civil war, segregation, and the Great Depression, respectively.
For example, Hillary Clinton, with approximately 66,000,000 votes, won more votes than Donald Trump, but not more than Obama, with 69,000,000. And that seems like a lot, but the South, as a region, has a population of 118,000,000, the West 75,000,000. In a country where candidates can focus on regional/tribal concerns, there’s a very real possibility of amplifying regional divides in the long term, not just urban-rural divide.
Under the Electoral College, there is the necessity for coalition-building and some sort of unity message. Without it, candidates can tailor their message exclusively to regional concerns. I consider this a relatively weak argument, personally, but it is certainly a real one that people are making, and certainly meets a reasonable bar for being worthy of consideration.
Alright, this is the biggest reason for me, aside from the practical futility of the whole thing.
You’ve probably seen a lot of this map, lately. It’s misleading, in that it makes the country look vastly Republican, when it’s not, but its importance should not be discounted, just because it’s not telling the story most people are attempting to tell with it.
Counties by vote, red of Trump, blue for Hillary:
In reality, it’s a bit more like this purple fellow:
With all the, “Trump isn’t my President!” stuff going around, which I feel a certain level of sympathy with, because, you know, I wish that were the case, I feel like this message should be more clearly evident than it seems to be:
A candidate chosen by the popular vote by winning in just a handful of populous districts in a handful of populous states will have a massive legitimacy problem; as large, or larger, than one who wins the Electoral College, but not the popular vote.
Hillary Clinton only won twenty states. So, while she won the popular vote by two percent 48.2% to 46.1%, she lost the states 40% to 60%, or by twenty percent.
It’s not that hard to make the case you’re a legitimate President of a country when you lost the total population count by 2%, but it’s something else to say the same thing when 60% of the major regional divisions didn’t support you.
It only gets worse when we break the map down further. Unfortunately, district-by-district counts are not yet available for 2016.
Shockingly, there is no comprehensive list of US counties by land area. This despite the fact that there are multiple sources tracking county population. The Associated Press found Clinton won 487 counties, versus 2,626 for President-elect Donald Trump. So, once you break it down beyond the states, Clinton only won a majority of the votes in 18% of geographical districts. In terms of actual land area, she managed to garner majority support in just 13.5% of the United States–note: this according to some back-of-the-envelope calculations I just did, so the number’s are a bit iffy. Still, they should be within 5%.
Yes, she won the popular vote, but it’s very hard to claim to represent a country when most residents in 86.5% of it don’t want you to be in charge. Frankly, it’s tricky to show a mandate to rule a country as large and diverse as this. You’re never going to have a perfect solution.
In fact, if it were possible to break the votes down by precinct, we’d likely find it was even worse. That map would be a handful of blue dots representing the dense urban centers of major metro centers. In other words, the finer the resolution of the map, the smaller percentage of it by area will be majority-Democrat. That’s a problem–not a moral one, but a structural problem in the current Democrat coalition; nothing more, nothing less.
It’s hard to imagine the already significant divide between the populous regions of the United States, and the rural regions which feel they, their interests, and their families have been forgotten by the coastal elites, would be anything but significantly exacerbated by this.
In an ideal situation, and eight out of every nine Presidential elections so far, the popular will of the nation has agreed with the geographic will of the nation, at least to a level of resolution equal to state boundaries. However, we absolutely cannot dismiss entirely the idea that a national majority does not confer a total mandate to victory, which is what a direct popular vote would convey.
How long could our nation honestly be expected to endure if the 2000 miles between the coastal states feel they are not represented in Federal governance?
Now, I understand many people living in cities might dismiss this, and all I can tell you, as someone who’s spent a good bit of time wandering around Rural America, don’t. Because they won’t. It might not be what you want to say, but what they’ll hear is, “We here in 10% of the country want to tell all of you in the other 90% how to live your lives.”
We already see a version of this in states where one or two large cities dominate state politics, and impose agendas and programs that the majority of jurisdictions in the state have no interest in. It causes friction, and talk of breaking the states up. As I said, there are strong arguments in favor of a straight popular vote, but we also need to accept that governing a country as large, populous, and diverse as ours by straight mob rule is going to cause some serious problems of its own.
If nothing else, moving to a popular vote would vastly strengthen those in favor balkanization of the states where those imbalances are largest, such as Illinois, California, and Oregon.
A Popular Vote probably won’t give you the result you’re imagining:
Look, if you’re advocating the end of the Electoral College right now, chances are you wanted Hillary Clinton to win. I’m fairly certain that, had Trump won the popular vote and Clinton the Electoral College, we’d be reading a lot of liberal think-pieces on how the Electoral College was designed and exists to protect us from candidates like Trump, and Republicans would be railing against the whole system for silencing the voices of people outside the cities. Whatever. Let’s ignore the hypocrisy of both sides, because, really, it cancels out. See, the wheel is always turning. Whatever one party does to the undercut the other will inevitably come back around. For a practical example, Harry Reid’s decision to change some Senate rules to limit the power of the opposition party to block Obama’s nominees is about to let every single Trump nominee Democrats are upset about to dance through confirmation. Around it comes, around it goes.
Okay, so let’s say we passed a constitutional amendment way back in the wake of 2000, Hillary Clinton would be President-elect right now, right?
Maybe. This comes with the huge caveat that campaigns would be run entirely differently.
The truth is, national campaigns are currently built with the Electoral College in mind–meaning they work to build coalitions that will bring them the majority support of the majority of states. If the states moved to a popular vote, campaigns would build coalitions with the intent of winning the most people, instead.
Assuming everyone will play the game the same after you’ve changed the rules is . . . I don’t think it counts as naive so much as thoughtless; doesn’t matter who you are, when you think about it, you know it won’t work that way. People will play the game differently if the rules change.
For example, Clinton got at least some of her popular vote boost this year from diminished Republican voter turnout in California, where both Senate candidates were Democrats, and Trump didn’t have a prayer of winning.
If anything, and ironically so, given the current positions of both parties, creating a pure popular vote will probably boost Republican popular vote performance more than Democrat.
Okay, this is already long, but you deserve an explanation for that. I didn’t expect that to be the case until I actually compared the numbers.
Here are the states by population:
Of the 15 most populous states:
6 are currently safe Democratic states: California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, and Massachusetts.
4 are swing states generally leaning Democrat: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan.
2 are true swing states: Florida and North Carolina.
1 is aswing states generally leaning Republican: Georgia.
2 are currently safe Republican states: Arizona and Texas.
It’s worth noting Democrats have their eyes on Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, and Texas as states that might become competitive in the next two or three election cycles. I think that’s a bit optimistic, but it’s important to note, since eliminating the electoral college would be a roughly ten-year process.
In other words, there are currently more Republicans living in blue states than Democrats living in red states. I could only find data for thirty-two states and the District of Columbia for party registration, but I subbed in actual voter data for the rest (giving us an imperfect dataset) which suggests there are 6.5+ million more Republican voters in Democrat-majority states than vice versa. We can’t forget that virtually every state is not red, or blue, but purple. To put the numbers in perspective, there are roughly 5 million registered Republicans in California, meaning there are more California Republican voters than there are people in 28 states.
This is a little counter-intuitive, so you might have to read this a couple times before it makes sense–and I’ll admit, I had to put some thought into the idea before the data made sense to me:
The Electoral College gives out-sized power to Republican-majority states in selecting the President, because there are more Republican majority states with small populations, but as a sum total actually renders more Republican than Democrat votes irrelevant in a normal election, because there are more Republicans living in Democrat-majority-leaning states. Redux: There’s more purple in the blue than purple in the red.
I can’t predict much, because some of the possible results (mostly how and where the changes might increase voter turnout) are simply unpredictable. Still, all of this put together means that eliminating the Electoral College is probably going to make Republican Presidential victories marginally more, not less likely, than in the current system. Despite how the past two mismatches have turned out. Which is weird, but, hey, life’s weird sometimes.
There’s no real reason for this, it’s just a fluke of the current voter map/coalitions in the United States. The key to making sense of it is to understand that voters aren’t states, and states aren’t voters. We have a system right now that favors, in the following order of influence: Republican States, Democrat Voters, Democrat States, Republican Voters, and axing it would create a system that favors them in the order of Republican Voters (most diminished absolute power in current system), Democratic States (more populous), Republican States (less populous), Democratic Voters (already most heavily located in blue states).
A Possibility for Compromise
If you still are hellbent on dropping the Electoral College as it currently stands, there is one far more realistic option, in every sense, than abolishing the Electoral College entirely. It would not require the amending of the Constitution, just state laws, and two states already do it: Awarding electoral college votes by Congressional District.
Under this system, already operating in Maine and Nebraska, and already described at the beginning of this article, the two Senatorial votes for each state are awarded to the statewide winner, but the rest of the votes are broken down by Congressional District. In this way, blue districts in Arizona and Texas would cast the vote for their candidate of choice, as would the red districts of Illinois and California. This eliminates, to a large degree, the problem of the Electoral College silencing tens of millions of votes every four years.
At the same time, it forces candidates to, if anything, build even broader coalitions to reach enough voters to win.
Okay, but here’s the downside:
Because of how many states have chosen to draw their congressional districts, this actually noses the Electoral College farther from the popular vote. Enough so that Romney would have won the 2012 election, since Obama won 32 congressional districts in the states Romney carried, and Romney won 99 congressional districts in the states Obama carried. This is part Gerrymandering, and part due to the larger number of Republicans in blue states than Democrats in red states we covered earlier. Actually, as recently as 2012, Democrats were up in arms about the Republican plan to corrupt the electoral college by awarding votes by district instead of state winner.
This is, incidentally, a pretty solid piece of circumstantial evidence that rural districts have a good reason to feel they’re being ignored by national politics–there are roughly three times as many rural districts being disenfranchised by the Electoral College as urban ones.
The point is, under the current gerrymandering, this solution might not fix the current problem, and it’s important to acknowledge that, too.
So the options are:
1. Keep the system we have.
You can do this by supporting it, or by protesting it, kicking, screaming, crying, liking, sharing, and ranting about it on social media, but the end result won’t change.
2. Push for state-by-state changes to the electoral college.
Of course, if you’re a Democrat, that will mean sacrificing the Presidency until your party adjusts its message to the needs and views of people outside major cities, and, from all sides, about a decade of hard work on minimizing gerrymandering, and even then arriving at a system slightly weighted towards the GOP candidate.
That’s all folks:
Whew! That was a long one! If you managed to make it all the way through, thanks for sticking around. This was actually a lot of fun to write. I had to put a lot of work into tracking down sources and combining data to get a decent picture of what was going on, which is always a good. The research for it led to a number of genuine surprises. For example, for the past couple years, and at the beginning of writing this, I was a proponent of the Maine/Nebraska Compromise, but it turns out that won’t fix anything at all, by itself.