The immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election ignited much discussion as to the merits of the electoral college system. Quite simply, does this system accurately represent the will of the American voter?
In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by ~3 million votes, or ~2%. Prior to Trump’s electoral college triumph by the tally of 304 to 227 (270 electoral votes are needed to win) there had been four other occasions where an elected president lost the popular vote.
In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore 271 to 266 despite losing the popular vote by ~500,000 votes or, <1%. The 2000 election was the closest in modern day history and had a particularly low (~51%) voter turnout.
The three other instances where a president was elected despite losing the popular vote occurred in the 19th century. In 1824, John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson despite Jackson having received 10% more popular votes. In a hotly contested 1876 election decided by 1 electoral vote, Rutherford B. Hays dispatched Samuel J. Tilden. And in 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but secured an electoral college victory over sitting president, Grover Cleveland.
Your Vote (Probably Does Not) Matter
America is deeply polarized. Most citizens in states located in the northeast and west coast vote for Democrats. In November, without a doubt, their electoral votes will be awarded to former Vice President Joe Biden. Most citizens in states located in the interior and south of the nation vote for Republicans. Their electoral votes will be awarded to President Trump.
There are ~320M people in America, of which ~255M are 18 years of age and can legally vote. However, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, only four states: Arizona (11 electoral votes), Florida (29), Georgia (16), and North Carolina (15) are considered “toss-up” states in the upcoming presidential election. This is particularly disheartening because the voting population of those four contested states is ~38.5 million people, or just ~15% of voting age Americans. Both Politico and Sabatos Crystal Ball’s analysis also place Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) in the “toss-up” bucket. With a population of ~4.5M people, that barely moves the needle on a national level, bringing the total number of voting age American’s in contested states to ~16.5% of the total. Some pundits argue that Texas (38 electoral votes) should also be considered a “toss-up” state. If former VP Biden wins TX, he is all but assured victory. For illustrative purposes, even if we assume that both WI & TX (pop.29M), in addition to AZ, FL, GA, & NC, are “toss-ups,” still only 28% of Americans would live in states that “matter.” (In 48 states, “winner takes all” electoral votes. Nebraska & Maine split their electoral votes using a blend of a statewide popular vote and broken down further, by district.)
Abolishing The Electoral College
Usually, the winner of the electoral vote also wins the popular vote. But as we demonstrated above, this has not always been the case. Furthermore, because America is perhaps now more than ever divided along political and, to a lesser degree, geographic lines, the chances of this once rare phenomena occurring more often, has increased.
To that end, there has been a lot of debate about the merits of abolishing the electoral college. Put simply, a democracy does not appear fair if the will of the majority is not upheld. Realistically, the debates regarding eliminating the electoral college and replacing it with a national popular vote will almost certainly remain theoretical.
A constitutional amendment is required to overhaul the current system. As opposed to a simple majority, amendments to the constitution require a 2/3rds majority in House, a 2/3rds majority in the Senate, and 3/4ths of state legislatures. (The last time the constitution was amended was in 1992). Given the current state of polarization in Washington coupled with the fact that the electoral college typically disproportionally benefits right leaning, sparsely populated rural states, it is all but certain that the current system will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
269 to 269
The only electoral college tie in U.S. history happened in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were deadlocked (Congress chose Jefferson; the stalemate resulted in the 12th amendment to the constitution.) The probability of an electoral college tie – 269 to 269 - is extremely low, but not impossible. That begs the question: under current law, what is the procedure to break one?
Americans might be alarmed to learn that the formula for settling a tie is potentially even more non-representative of the peoples’ will than in a general election. In the event of a tie, the decision falls to the House of Representatives. And it is almost a certainty that Democrats will retain control of the house. Easy enough, they install Biden, right? Wrong.
Although Democrats will hold a majority in the House of Representatives, each state is afforded 1 equally weighted vote / delegate regardless of how many representatives they have in Congress.
For example, New York state has 27 congressional representatives in the House of Representatives, 21 Democrats and 5 Republicans (1 seat is vacant). Louisiana has 6 congressional representatives in the House of Representatives, 5 Republicans and 1 Democrat. New York has over four times the number of representatives in congress than does Louisiana, but nonetheless NY and LA are entitled to 1 equally weighted vote / delegate. The majority of New York’s representatives are Democrats; NY will vote for Biden. The majority of Louisiana‘s representatives are Republicans; LA will vote for Trump.
In the instance of a tie, the House of Representatives will elect Trump to a second term. Why? Because each state is entitled to one equally weighted vote, and even though Democrats will hold more overall seats, more states – typically sparsely populated rural ones – have Republican majorities within their own state.
This means that in the event of an electoral college tie, Donald Trump could theoretically lose the popular vote, and then be elected by a House of Representatives that is controlled by Democrats.