The ballots of more than 4.4 million Californians who voted for Donald Trump to be president in the 2016 election were not considered in the final decision-making process to determine whether he should be president or not.
If you rattled off that fact to a Trump supporter (or to Trump himself), it’s likely that a feeling of bafflement or incredulity would come about as a result. As well it should: every ballot across the country deserves to be treated equally, so long as the person casting it is a valid elector.
That’s not the system of government we currently live under, however. With the Electoral College in place, those 4.4 million ballots were largely ignored because more than 8 million ballots in favor of Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton had won the state.
As a result, 55 Electoral College votes in the state of California went to Clinton. Zero went for Trump.
In other parts of the country, the opposite trend happened. Although Clinton won the popular vote of the United States as a whole by nearly 3 million votes, Trump took 304 Electoral College votes in 2016, securing him the presidency despite not having won the confidence of a majority or even a plurality of voters across the nation.
Neither the state outcome in California, nor the national outcome across the 50 states plus Washington D.C., seems fair. And it’s why there’s a justified nationwide effort to squash the Electoral College, in favor of the popular vote, once and for all.
What is the Electoral College?
As a brief refresher, here’s how the Electoral College works: each state receives a number of electors based on how many members of Congress it has (its House members plus two Senators). After the votes are tallied on election night, each state disperses its total number of electors to a certain candidate based on the total vote within its borders (save for Maine and Nebraska, which dishes them out based on who won individual Congressional districts, handing out the remaining two electors based on the popular vote within the totality of the state).
This “winner takes all” system within each state ensures that a candidate with a plurality of votes takes home that state’s electors. It seems like a fine idea on paper — until you realize it’s completely anti-democratic.
There are ways to game the system. A candidate only has to win, for example, just 11 states out of the whole country in order to attain the 270 majority to become the next president. As NPR reported in 2016 (before the election that year took place), this makes it possible for a candidate to become president by only winning 23 percent of the popular vote.
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There have been five occasions in which the president “selected” wasn’t the individual that the American people voted to have become commander-in-chief. The most recent example of this was in 2016, with Trump’s victory. It was also the second occasion within two decades of the phenomenon happening.
The current effort to end the Electoral College
Because it can choose a person to become president even if that person wasn’t chosen by the people, efforts to end the Electoral College have been around for decades.
Officially, the Electoral College can only be truly abolished through a Constitutional amendment. But there are ways to work around the challenges of passing such an amendment, to allow for a number of states to remedy the situation on their own.
A national movement between the states has begun, known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which seeks to reward the presidency to whoever wins the most votes from people actually voting.
The states that have passed the provisions of the compact have agreed to cast their Electoral College votes toward whichever candidate wins the popular vote — even if a majority of voters in their jurisdictions choose a different candidate. The idea here is that states in the compact agree that it’s important for the nation at-large to choose the president, not just a select few states with strategic importance based off the Electoral College.
The states that have signed onto the compact so far have agreed only to do so once the threshold for a majority of electors — again, 270 Electoral College votes — have been reached among them.
As of Tuesday, the total is at 181 Electoral College votes, meaning any number of states representing 81 electors are still needed before it goes into place. The Delaware state House of Representatives voted to join the compact on Tuesday, and the governor of that state has signaled support in signing the bill if it reaches his desk. It would bring the total up to 184 Electoral College votes in favor of the compact.
Response to those in opposition to ending the Electoral College
Some have suggested that ending the Electoral College would actually be a bad idea, despite recent polls demonstrating that a majority of Americans support abolishing the archaic presidential selection method. These arguments typically rely upon an errant belief that ending the Electoral College would give candidates no incentives to travel across the country, courting voters in “swing” states they’d otherwise ignore.
VozWire’s own Michael Lopez disagrees with doing-away with the Electoral College. He writes:
The “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” is being sold as a way to “make every vote count,” yet in practice, it disenfranchises those who are not living in major population centers.
Michael and I disagree on this point, which is often touted by others who oppose the Electoral College, which is the idea that a candidate might “camp out” in major population areas in order to win the election. However, that’s just not the reality of what would be likely to happen.
First off, we live in a modern era where a candidate could feasibly do that anyway, right now, with the ease of a hand-held mobile device. And in fact, for most of the nation, it’s already the case: candidates tend to spend most of their time within a select few number of states, knowing that a number of others are going to vote their way regardless of whether they visit them or not. Two out of every three campaign stops between the Democratic and Republican general election candidates running for president in 2016 were in just six states total; 19 out of every 20 stops were in just 12 states.
That means, 95 percent of the time after July of 2016, that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, nor their vice presidential running mates, campaigned in any of the other 38 states across the country.
Would it be any better under a popular vote model? It sure would. While the perception may be that a candidate would only have to go to two or three major cities to win, the reality is that the 500 largest cities across the country represent only a third of the entire U.S. population, according to the CDC.
If we look at metropolitan areas instead of cities, the map does shrink a bit, but not nearly to the extent that it is currently at under the Electoral College. According to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 38 metro areas represent just over 50 percent of the population United States. Those 38 areas are within 24 states (and that’s a conservative estimate, as some of the metro areas, like Kansas City, Missouri, extend into neighboring states).
For a candidate to perform a BARE MINIMUM of work to get 50 percent of the vote, they’d have to travel to these 24 states — 12 more than were traveled to in 2016 by the major candidates. But that supposition is based on that candidate winning 100 percent of the vote in each of those 38 highly-populated areas. That’s not going to happen, and so travel will likely need to extend beyond these areas for any one candidate.
What about rural areas? As it stands right now, candidates court voters in states, not urban, rural, or suburban areas. But take away those geopolitical boundaries, and you’re likely to find that candidates will have to court voters in different ways — including going to rural areas.
It’d be dumb not to do so. Rural America accounts for one out of every five citizens, or about 60 million Americans. To ignore this demographic would be political suicide — a move that is arguably possible, however, under the rules of the Electoral College.
To win states under the current model, a candidate doesn’t have to court these rural voters. They just have to win a majority of voters in population centers within each state. In short, the argument that rural voters could be ignored under a popular vote model is truer, in some ways, under the current Electoral College system.
There’s also a misconception among many I’ve talked to that the Electoral College was put in place because the founders wanted to protect us against “mob rule.” Any student of American history can tell you this isn’t true — especially since voting rights were only conferred upon a small number of people to begin with, mainly landowning white males. The Electoral College, some historians have noted, was more likely put in place to protect the institution of slavery rather than against democracy.
Voting rights have evolved in substantial ways since that time. The landowning requirement ended in the mid-1800s. Black males were, at least nominally, allowed the right to vote after the Civil War. Voters were granted the right to select Senators in the early 20th century, and women gained the right to vote in 1920. Jim Crow laws were deemed unlawful in the 1960s. Changes to our elections happen, and generally for the better.
The Electoral College itself was changed as part of the 12th amendment in the early 1800s, the result of difficulties in differentiating between presidential and vice presidential candidates. We shouldn’t keep it in place for tradition’s sake, nor based upon false sentiments that it somehow protects small-state voters (those voters are already largely ignored).
The worries over “mob rule,” which again, were largely fabricated to begin with, have dissipated as time has gone by and voters have become more educated. We don’t have such worries anymore, given that we allow every citizen over the age of 18 to vote for the president in their respective states. Such concerns should be scoffed at, as it suggests we cannot trust citizens of this great country to select for themselves the chief executive.
It’s far past time to end the Electoral College
As noted above, voting rights and privileges have changed substantially since the founding of our nation. Understanding that we entrust to each citizen the right of voting, it only makes sense that a popular vote for president ought to be respected — and that the Electoral College should be ended, once and for all.
Every argument against ending the Electoral College falls apart when you consider what a popular vote might look like instead. Even the errant belief that the “map would shrink” doesn’t hold up — population numbers across the country demonstrate that not to be the case at all, and that the map would actually expand under a popular vote model.
One person, one vote. It’s that simple. And if it’s good enough for other elected leaders, including governors, representatives, senators, and even dog-catchers, it’s good enough for the president.
Featured image credit: U.S. Army/Public Domain