What If We Changed the Electoral College?
“The fat lady has sung.” That’s an old expression about how to tell if an opera is over—“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” In the age of Donald Trump, such language seems an appropriate way to say that all the crazy, desperate, convoluted things his opponents tried have failed, and Trump will become US President #45 in January. (Note that Grover Cleveland is #22 AND #24, because in his first re-election bid, Cleveland won the popular vote—but lost the electoral vote. Déjà vu to you, too.)
The Never-Trump attack included running Evan McMullin, hoping to win Utah, thinking a close election could be thrown into the House of Representatives. Then, there was Jill Stein’s attempt to recount Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That was a blatantly political (and stupid) move. If she had included the even closer Hillary win in New Hampshire, no one could have called her attempt partisan.
If the recount had flipped Pennsylvania and the razor-thin Michigan, the Electoral count would have been tied. BUT that would not necessarily have thrown the election into the Republican House. At that point, all they would have needed would be a few “unfaithful electors” to vote against Trump, to keep him out of the White House. But, alas, the recounts were stamped out, and only a few electors voted against their state’s tally.
Yep, it may seem like the “Electoral College” makes as much sense as “Trump University,” neither being about higher education, and both having serious flaws. But it’s the system we have. And that system just officially chose Donald Trump.
“Today we walk through history together,” said Robert Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania GOP, said as he led the proceedings in his state — one of several Rust Belt and midwestern states to flip, delivering the GOP the White House once again.
Claims of “dozens” of GOP electors prepared to ditch Mr. Trump didn’t materialize. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton seemed to suffer worse in the actual voting.
Four Democratic electors in Washington state defected, with three voting for one of her predecessors, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and one voting for Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American leader active in the recent fight against a pipeline in the Dakotas.
With all the ways Trump’s detractors tried to woo, cajole, and intimidate GOP electors to become “unfaithful,” it was actually Hillary Clinton who lost votes in the Electoral College, Monday. Of course, it’s easier to jump from a sinking ship. . . However, we should remember that Hillary won, perhaps, more than three million votes more than Trump, so it’s no wonder her fans are upset. Especially since the same thing happened just 16 years ago. And particularly since Trump is picking the most extreme choices possible into his government.
There have been many complaints about the Electoral College. Some want to scrap it, but that would take a constitutional amendment. Others have proposed different ways for the electors to vote, for instance, allotting the electors equivalent to the popular vote in each state, instead of “winner take all.”
Traditionalists say that the Electoral College forces candidates to seek votes in states with small populations, instead of focusing all their time where most people live. But that overlooks the fundamental undemocratic aspect of the system, that is, that it doesn’t respect our belief in “one person, one vote.”
This chart shows that Florida requires the most popular vote per electoral vote—324,829. Then, look at Wyoming, with the least popular vote per electoral vote—85,283. They are both “Red States” this time around, so it is not partisan to point out that an individual voter in Wyoming has almost FOUR TIMES as much electoral power as a Floridian. In what universe should a northwesterner have four times as much political voice as a southeasterner??
How does this happen? It’s because electors are tallied by the number of US Representatives and Senators. That warps the number, because large and small states all have just two Senators, each. And also, gerrymandering has twisted the democracy, as giant majorities elect some reps, while a larger number of the other party are elected by only a small number, each—meaning more seats for fewer votes.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: As noted in the comments below, the Minnesotan was in error, saying DC has three representatives. While DC has three presidential Electors, they have no Congressional representatives.]
Each state is allocated electors equal to the number of members in its congressional delegation — one for each member of the House of Representatives and two for each state’s Senators. (The District of Columbia has no senators, but has three votes based on its three representatives in Congress.)
Congressional district maps are redrawn with every decennial census, and electors are redistributed every ten years as well. But the ratio of actual votes to electoral votes can vary widely from state to state. One electoral vote in one state can represent fewer than 90,000 voters, while one electoral vote in another state can represent more than 320,000.
The article goes on to suggest that things are just fine. After all, Trump did win the most states.
It seems Trump may have benefitted from this system, but he won the majority of the popular vote in 30 states. As electors gather to cast their votes, he is claiming 306 votes in the Electoral College. Although many voters have expressed frustration with another instance of a candidate winning the Electoral College and the presidency while losing the popular vote, the process is established in the Constitution, and it is unlikely to change any time in the near future.
So would Trump have won with a shaken up electoral vote? Let’s look at that chart again—in order of highest vote-per-elector, and add up the votes with “all things being equal.” That is, as the article notes, “The national average for the number of voters represented by an electoral vote in 2016 was 253,352.”
Dividing the latter number into the popular vote, we’d get the equalized electoral vote, according to Cook totals:
New Hamps* 744,158–3
North Carol* 4,741,564–19
D Columbia* 311,268–1
New Jersey* 3,874,046–15
New Mexico* 798,318–4
New York* 7,710,126–30
North Dakota* 344,360–1
Rhode Islan* 464,144–2
South Caroi* 2,103,027–8
South Dakota 370,047–1
West Virginia* 713,051–3
So using a system in which states are still counted separately in the Electoral College, but basing the elector count on popular vote per state, Hillary would have won 361 to 358—or in terms we’re used to, 270 to 269. Of course, this would be tricky, since we would have to wait until all popular votes were counted officially—and more delay would come from challenges and recounts. Finding the winner in a close election would take a long time.
What if we based electoral count by population? The number of electors per state would then be known ahead of the election, and the winner could be known on election night.
Dividing the same denominator into the population [not popular vote] of the states, let’s see how the election would have turned out:
Trump won these:
North Carolina, 39
South Carolina, 19
West Virginia, 7
South Dakota, 3
North Dakota, 3
Meanwhile, Hillary won these:
New Jersey, 35
New York, 78
New Hampshire, 5
New Mexico, 8
Rhode Island, 4
According to these calculations, by winning so many more states, Trump still would have won the electoral college, 727 to 545 (or more recognizable, 307 to 231), even with Hillary winning about three million more popular votes.
How can that be? It’s because Hillary won votes where she didn’t need them. For instance, her entire overage is due to one state—California. Meanwhile, Trump was winning a raft of large states by a whisker—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin.
This math was based on population, not popular vote. Some say the election was about turnout. In this case, if the voters didn’t turn out to support their state, it’s really the voters who are to blame. Trump won 1-1/2 times as many states, and it wasn’t just the “empty” states. He won many of the “biggies.” Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina—seven of the top ten most populous states.
Like it or not, Trump prevailed among a wider range of voters, so his win is not as unfair as the total popular vote suggests.