Immediately after the 2016 presidential election in which Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes or 2.1% and yet won the electoral college overwhelmingly, we all heard Clinton supporters complain that the electoral college should be abolished. There’s still plenty of grumbling on that topic amongst Democrats, but it is a back burner issue for most of them.
That’s a shame because the electoral college is even more anti-democratic than most people recognize. I don’t mean anti-Democratic Party, I mean anti-democracy.
Using the turn out from the 2016 election as an example, it is mathematically possible for a candidate to win with less than 24% of the popular vote and still become president if they win the 41 smallest states, including the District of Columbia, by a margin of a single vote in each. Conversely if the candidate wins the largest 11 states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey, by a margin of just one vote each they would become president with less than 28% of the popular vote.
The examples I’ve used are the most extreme and rather unlikely but there are many other combinations in which a candidate winning vastly fewer votes than their opponent nevertheless can win the presidency due to the electoral college.
There have been four other elections in the U.S. in which the winner had fewer popular votes than their opponent, the most recent was in 2000 when George W. Bush won over Al Gore. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won a majority of the popular vote at 50.9% and still lost the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes due to the electoral college.
Alexander Hamilton identified several reasons and assumptions considered by the framers of the constitution which he articulated in his various writings. Among those reasons and assumptions were: The choice of the president should reflect the “sense of the people” at a particular time. The choice would be made decisively with a “full and fair expression of the public will” but also maintaining “as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.”
Individual electors would be elected by citizens on a district-by-district basis. Each presidential elector would exercise independent judgment when voting, deliberating with the most complete information available in a system that over time, tended to bring about a good administration of the laws passed by Congress.
In this case, Hamilton and his fellow framers seem to have completely missed the mark. What could more fully reflect the sense of the people than election by popular vote? At least in Texas, hardly anyone knows or cares who their presidential electors are as they are selected by the attendees of their party’s state convention before the party candidates have been finalized.
Tumult and disorder is exactly what we’ve gotten both times in the last 20 years when the electoral college has chosen a winner who didn’t also win the popular vote. Independent judgement is not something voters appreciate from their electors and some states require electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state assessing fines if they don’t.
Change via a constitutional amendment may be beyond reach but several election reform groups haven’t given up hope of changing the situation and they’ve gotten quite a number of states to adopt legislation requiring their electoral college votes to be cast for the winner of the national popular vote regardless of who wins in their particular state once enough states to win the electoral college have joined them in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
JC Dufresne is a liberal activist and current member of the State Democratic Executive Committee, representing Senate District 25.