Let’s be quite clear about who won the 2016 presidential election. It was Hillary Clinton, who is currently ahead by about 700,000 popular votes with the counting still underway. More significantly, when all the votes are counted, most estimates have the final total at 1.8 million more votes for Clinton than for Trump. That’s 1.5% of total votes, which while not a landslide, is a greater difference than many elections in which the popular winner also wins the Electoral College. The raw total of 1.8 million is roughly twice the difference between the winners’ and losers’ vote in all four previous elections in which the loser in the popular vote assumed the presidency.
Almost everyone knows that two peculiarities of the American system lead to the loser in the popular vote sometimes assuming control of the White House: 1) Voters vote for electors who then vote for the president and vice president. 2) Electors vote as a block according to state. Without an Electoral College, or with one that voted proportionately, we would have our first woman president embracing the most progressive platform in American history. It’s what the American people clearly wanted, but what we will get instead is a mentally unbalanced know-nothing political novice guided on social issues by the alt-right and on economic issues by the greed of his social class.
The stated reason that the founders of the United States—you know, that handful of rich white male merchants and slave owning gentry—preferred the Electoral College to electing a president via the popular vote was to balance the interests of the states with those of the national government in the same way that the Senate does. I also believe some of them feared the votes of the mob and thought they could manipulate the Electoral College to keep real power in the hands of the few, which worked for maybe two decades.
What the Electoral College really does is put more power in the hands of rural areas because it rations out votes based on geography. Rural areas are less populated than urban areas, so a state with a large rural population has greater influence on elections than one with an urban population. Note that in the entire recorded history of mankind in all parts of the earth, more densely populated areas have always without exception been more diverse, spun off more innovation and have had more rules governing interactions than less populated areas. The urban-rural divide goes back probably to the formation of cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, the U.S. voting population was primarily agrarian and either of Anglo-Saxon or German origins, so the urban-rural divide didn’t matter that much. Since about the 1880s, it has mattered a great deal.
Today’s situation is ridiculous. Let’s do the math: When you divide the number of electoral votes per state by the number of voters, we find that a vote by someone in Vermont, our smallest state in population and also one of our most rural, is worth more than twice as much as a vote by someone in California. (Vermont: 3 divided by 321,000 = .0000093; California: 55 divided by 13,600,000 = .0000040). Now in today’s topsy-turvy world, that’s a lack of taxation because of a lack of representation!
A significant ramification of the Electoral College is to make it seem at least in most instances that the presidential mandate to govern is stronger than it actually is. For example, while Lyndon Baines Johnson got 61.1% of the popular vote, his total in the Electoral College was in excess of 90%! This year while losing the popular vote, Trumpty-Dumpty (no, I will not give him the respect he doesn’t deserve and has not earned!) won the Electoral College with a landslide of 56.9%.
Looking at the other four instances of the loser winning the popular vote for president is very illuminating. Here is a chart with the essentials:
|Year||Popular Winner/Edge||Declared President||Electors/House|
|1824||Andrew Jackson (10.5%)||John Q. Adams||House|
|1876||Samuel Tilden (3%)||Rutherford B. Hayes||Electors*|
|1888||Grover Cleveland (.8%)||Benjamin Harrison||Electors|
|2000||Al Gore (.5%)||George W. Bush||Electors|
|2016||Hillary Clinton (1.5-3%)||Donald Trump||Electors|
* After negotiation over disputed electors
In every case, the Republican won, and in all but the selection of the brilliant John Quincy Adams over the ruthless, racist and sometimes lawless Andrew Jackson by the House of Representatives, the decision led to mediocre or disastrous presidencies. Only the unmitigated disaster—Bush II—was reelected. Every one of these elections had one or more third party candidates who siphoned off at least one percent of the vote and enough votes to turn the tide. In two of the elections, the loser assumed the presidency in the very next election.
The similarity that is most noteworthy for the recent election is the fact that in all the popular-loser-wins elections, disenfranchised voters would have gone heavily for the candidate who won the popular vote but lost the election. Remember that one of the strands of American history is the gradual enfranchisement of voters, from white males with property to white males in general to African-American men in theory to women to African-Americans in practice to expanded voting hours and voting days. This history takes an anti-democratic turn in the 1990s, when one of the major parties implemented a long-term campaign to suppress voting by minorities and the young by purging voter rolls, gerrymandering states to create safe districts for their party, decreasing voting hours and polling places, not allowing ex-felons who have paid their debt to society to vote, passing new laws that mandate voter IDs and using dirty tricks against organizations such as ACORN that work to get out the vote. The largest voter suppression efforts were in the so-called swing states.
Voter suppression paid off in 2000 and again in 2016. While the will of a majority of the states was to elect Donald Trump, the will of the people was to elect Hillary Clinton. The people were thwarted by the Electoral College.
I recently signed a petition that demands that the Electors vote for Hillary instead of Trumpty-Dumpty. I urge all readers to sign it, but only as a protest act. The Electors virtually never vote against the will of the voters in their respective states, even though they could in 24 states. They are just too interested in maintaining the stability to which I alluded before.
It would be wishful thinking to think we can replace the Electoral College with popular voting in the short term. It would take an amendment to the constitution and those are getting harder to pass with each decade. But first one or both of the two major political parties would have to get behind a move to abolition the Electoral College, and, to quote my father, that ain’t gonna happen!
The reason: stability. Once the election is over, establishing a peaceful transfer of power and communicating the long-term stability of the United States usually becomes the most important goal of the losing party. It’s why Nixon didn’t raise a stink about possible voter fraud in Illinois and elsewhere in 1960, why Gore didn’t protest the Supreme Court decision that gave Bush II the election in 2000, and why Clinton and Obama are striking such conciliatory notes towards the Donald and not encouraging the wave of protest that has broken out all over the country. It’s also why Trump’s accusations that the election was rigged were considered so destabilizing by so many elected officials and political scientists of both parties. By magnifying the victory of the winner, the Electoral College helps to assure stability by giving a false mandate.
The smarter play for the left would be to work at the state level in two ways:
- Register voters and get them to the polls. We can’t limit voter registration drives to presidential election years.
- Elect state representatives who will repeal the recent wave of voter suppression laws.
The goal should be to control all state legislatures in swing states and as many as possible overall by 2020, when the country next sets Congressional districts.
The left can’t take back this country until we take back the states.