The Electoral College (EC) as we know it today was established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution and ratified in 1804 via the 12th Amendment. Under this set-up each state gets is appointed the same number of electors as they have Representatives and Senators in Congress, with D.C. getting 3 electors.
The purpose of the EC was to (1) give smaller states the same power as more populous states and (2) to make sure that there was a buffer between the populace and the candidates so that only the qualified person would become President. Per Hamilton in the Federalist Papers:
“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.”
With few exceptions, most states require that the popular vote winner in that state gets all of the electoral votes, regardless of whether they win the popular vote by 70% or 45%. This leads to the potential disenchantment of voters when their candidate loses and their vote is therefore negated with 100% of the electoral votes in that state going to their opponent.
To add insult to injury, there have been 5 instances wherein the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote:
- Andrew Jackson in 1824 (to John Quincy Adams)
- Samuel Tilden in 1876 (to Rutherford B. Hayes)
- Grover Cleveland in 1888 (to Benjamin Harrison)
- Al Gore in 2000 (to George W. Bush)
- Hillary Clinton in 2016 (to Donald Trump)
With Trump set to become President #45, this works out to 1 out of 9 Presidents (or 11%) being elected while having lost the popular vote. That’s too high a number!
While Republicans would be loath to change a system that allowed them to win the presidency twice in the last 16 years after having lost the popular vote, certain changes are still necessary. Some have called for the elimination of the Electoral College completely, but I think simple adjustments can be made that would preserve the intrinsic safeguards provided for by the EC while allowing for all votes to count.
Moving to a Proportionate System
In 2004 Colorado voted down a “proportional system” in which electors would vote proportionally based on the state’s popular vote. This was short-sighted, however, as a proportional system is exactly the fix we as a nation need.
Iowa has 6 electoral votes and in November 1,519,299 residents voted for a President. Trump won the popular vote with 51.7% of all votes. But in awarding 100% of the electoral votes to Trump we had to tell 720,997 residents that their votes didn’t matter. How is that fair? In a proportional system Trump would have received 3 votes and Clinton 3.
In California there are 55 electoral votes up for grab. Last month Clinton led the state with 5,432,316 votes out of a total of 8,802,595 – good for 61.4%. Yet she walked away with 100% of the electoral votes. Here again we’re telling over 3.3 million people that their vote didn’t matter. In a proportional system Clinton would have only received 34 of the votes while Trump would have received 18 instead of the zero he did get last month.
And remember Colorado? Trump would have picked up 2 votes, instead zero.
What’s Wrong with Oregon?
The Electoral system we have also causes candidates to focus on a select set of “Key Swing States” – OH, PA, FL, etc. – and ignore others like Oregon and Hawaii due to the concentration of electoral votes in these larger states. A true proportionate voting system would force candidates to visit far more states than they now do. Trump did a better job of this than Clinton, but still fell far short of covering all 50 states.
The New Math
So what would a true proportionate electoral system have looked like in 2016?
- TRUMP = 252
- CLINTON = 255
- OTHER CANDIDATES = 7
Based on fractions and rounding, there would still be 10 electoral votes not accounted for in states like Virginia, West Virginia, and New York. So, to whom would these extra votes go to? The fairest method that I can think of is to give the popular vote winner in a particular state any extra electoral vote from that state.
The final tallies would then look like this:
- TRUMP = 252 + GA + ID + KS + MS + WV = 257
- CLINTON = 255 + AZ + CO + NM + NY + VA = 260
- OTHER CANDIDATES = 7
As you’ll see, neither candidate came away with the required 270 votes, BUT every vote counted and even the 3rd party candidates were validated with a total of 7 electoral votes. The last time any 3rd party candidate received any electoral votes? George Wallace won 46 votes in 1968 – that was almost a half-century ago! [Note: Ross Perot received 19.7 million votes in 1992 but did not win any of the electoral votes].
This year both Clinton and Trump would have split the leftover electoral votes 5 apiece, preserving the lead for Clinton, but could just as easily swing in Trump’s favor by a few (as he famously stated) had both candidates campaigned harder in the non-swing states.
So What Happens Next?
When neither candidate wins the majority of electoral votes the selection of the President, that choice would then go to the House of Representatives. Conversely, the choice of Vice-President would then be decided by the Senate.
It’s all together possible that we might see a President from 1 party and a VP from another party elected into office. And it’s anyone’s guess as to who Congress would pick, but it’s interesting to consider.
And in the end every vote will have counted. Isn’t that what a true democracy is really all about?