The Electoral College is a Distraction

by Benjamin Studebaker

There are some people who feel that because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college is illegitimate. This is a very poor argument–there are many much more interesting grounds for challenging Trump’s legitimacy than the electoral college.

The electoral college only makes a difference in the presidential election when the election is essentially a tossup. There have now been 58 presidential elections, and the popular vote leader has only lost 5 of them, a 91% winning percentage:

  • 1824, a four-way slugfest in which no candidate secured a majority in either the electoral college or the popular vote and the election was decided in the house (John Quincy Adams won and Andrew Jackson got revenge in 1828).
  • 1876, in which Rutherford Hayes beat Samuel Tilden by 1 electoral vote despite losing the popular vote by 3 percentage points. The Democrats agreed not to challenge the result in exchange for an end to reconstruction.
  • 1888, in which Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland by 65 electoral votes despite losing the popular vote by 0.8 percentage points. Cleveland got revenge in 1892.
  • 2000, in which George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 5 electoral votes despite losing the popular vote by 0.5 percentage points. The Democrats attempted to challenge the result but were defeated in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
  • 2016, in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 74 electoral votes despite losing the popular vote by about 1 percentage point at current count.

Excluding the especially zany 1824 election, the electoral vote has only overridden the popular vote when the election has been decided by three points or less. The electoral college gives a little bit more influence to states with low populations and small numbers of electors. All the states in the left hand column and in the right above Maryland are made stronger by the electoral college, and all the states in the right hand column below Maryland (and including it) are made weaker:

All this really means in practice is that if there’s a near-tie, the little states win. This helps Republicans in Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Alaska, but it also helps Democrats in DC, Vermont, and Rhode Island. Many of the states that proved decisive for Trump (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida) are weakened by the electoral college. He won because Clinton squandered time and resources in states like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia. She won more votes in those states than Obama did in 2012, but failed to win their electoral votes. In the meantime she ignored rust belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, assuming them to be safe. They were not safe:

In this way, the electoral college forces winning presidents to have broad support across multiple regions. You can win all the votes you want in the Northeast, but if you don’t get majorities outside that region you aren’t going to be president. The same is true for candidates with strongholds in the deep south, the midwest, or the west coast.

In theory if we scrapped the electoral college it would be much easier to have a tyranny of the majority. Imagine for instance a hypothetical presidential election between two candidates, Bob and Leonard. Bob loves cities, and he makes several promises:

  • Bob will levy a “space-eating tax” on single family homes and farms so that this money can be used to finance urban renewal projects in the cities.
  • Bob will make electricity free for people living in urban areas by building a bunch of state-owned nuclear power plants located in rural areas so that if they meltdown, the cities will be protected.
  • Bob will lift controls on immigration and trade. He will use cheap immigrant labor to build and operate the power plants, and he will drive down the cost of imports for urban consumers. This will devastate farmers and manufacturers in rural areas, but when Bob is confronted with this he just tells them to move to the cities, because that’s where the future is.
  • Bob will prioritize infrastructure projects that relieve traffic in cities. He wants to build high speed rail lines, subways, and monorails that don’t stop in rural areas. He will link everyone in the cities up to Google Fiber, but he won’t bother to expand this network into rural areas because it’s “not cost-effective”.
  • Bob will ban guns and hire immigrants to confiscate them.

Leonard loves the countryside, and he makes a completely different set of promises:

  • Leonard promises to levy an “urban blight tax” on high occupancy apartment buildings to revitalize the downtowns of America’s smaller communities.
  • Leonard will make electricity cheap by heavily subsidizing clean coal power plants, reopening the coal mines and putting the miners back to work.
  • Leonard will strictly control immigration and trade to protect the jobs of farm and factory workers living outside the cities.
  • Leonard will prioritize infrastructure projects that help rural areas catch up to the cities, repairing and replacing damaged and neglected roads and bridges and improving internet access in isolated areas. He promises to always hire locally.
  • Leonard will crush urban crime by building walls around troublesome areas so that the people who live there can’t venture out into the suburbs and make trouble.

Without the electoral college, Bob and Leonard only need to rally their bases. They don’t need to reach out. Bob can ignore a state like Wyoming and just try to get 90% of the vote in New York City, while Leonard can ignore places like New York City and just try to get 90% of the rural and suburban voters. This encourages them to more and more blatantly favor their core supporters. Whichever one wins, much of the country will feel that the new president doesn’t care about them at all. With the electoral college, returns diminish once you have a state securely in your pocket. As soon as Bob gets to 55% in New York, he needs to start figuring out how to broaden his coalition. An extra 10% or 20% in New York can’t offset narrow losses elsewhere.

Hillary Clinton was nowhere near as sectionalist as Bob, but she did concentrate too heavily on a narrow base comprised of Hispanics, blacks, and social liberals, ignoring the white working class, union voters that have traditionally been an important part of the Democratic base. Donald Trump had limited appeal as well, but the people who backed him were more evenly distributed among the states, and that makes it harder for any geographic region of the country to feel especially excluded by Trump. This is why the electoral college makes him the winner–it rewards him for not having a geographically concentrated support base. It’s agnostic about whether the support base is racially or religiously concentrated, provided that race and religion don’t heavily track geography.

But even so, it only makes a difference at the margins. In practice, the election has to be so close for the electoral college to matter that the result is largely a coin flip. Six months ago, many of the same people who are now upset about the electoral college believed that Trump was a Goldwater figure, a candidate so nakedly unreasonable that he couldn’t possibly win or even prove competitive. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 22.6 percentage points. If Clinton had come anywhere close to that kind of margin, the electoral college wouldn’t matter at all. These people made major mistakes. They either believed that Clinton was a much stronger candidate than she was, that Trump was a much weaker candidate than he was, or that the voters in general are much better at voting than they were.

Rather than question those beliefs, they want to waste time fighting the electoral college. And that’s a shame, because there is an argument to be made that Donald Trump is so incompetent and his campaign was so nakedly deceitful that his victory–indeed, even the fact that it was possible for him to be competitive–undermines the legitimacy of our democracy because it suggests that our voting system does not produce good results or protect us from bad ones. The fact that most Americans didn’t vote for either him or Clinton (even she only earned about 19% of the votes of the citizens of the country, and together they didn’t get 40% of the people’s support) indicates that many feel that our democratic procedures don’t work and aren’t worth participating in. Others are excluded from the process by criminal history, age, or voter ID laws. If our democracy doesn’t produce good results and it’s not especially inclusive, what legitimizes it as our collective decision-making procedure?

That would be an interesting, courageous question to ask. The fact that our people would rather focus on the electoral college just underlines the validity of the critique they should be making–if we elect an incompetent person to be president and all we complain about is the electoral college, are we really thoughtful enough to effectively make these kinds of decisions democratically? And if we’re still confident in our democratic institutions, what did the Clinton campaign get wrong? Why didn’t she win by 22? Or even just by 5?