On 7 November 2012, Donald Trump tweeted “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy”. In that election, Barack Obama won almost 66 million votes nationwide, carried victories in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and 332 electoral college votes. His overall percentage was 51% to his opponent Mitt Romney’s 47%. This stands in stark contrast to the margins in 2016, where Trump won victory through the Electoral College while his opponent Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency although she won the popular vote. As we wait for votes to come through in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona, Trump is again playing for Electoral College votes – his opponent Joe Biden has already won an unassailable lead in the popular vote, and has in fact garnered more votes in hard numerical terms than any other presidential candidate in history.
So, what is the electoral college, why does it exist, and how does it work?
When Americans vote in a presidential election, they are not actually voting for the President. They are voting on a state-by-state basis for a panel of people nominated by their state legislature as Electors, who will then cast their votes in line with the decision of the voters in their state. While the Electors never actually meet as a whole group, the congregation of these people is called the Electoral College, and votes are usually cast and certified by December.
There are currently 538 Electors distributed across the various states, based on the population of these states. So, when you look at the interactive electoral maps produced in the media showing ‘Electoral college votes’, this tells you how many electors each state has. This all means that whatever the voters may think, the Presidential race in the US is decided by indirect voting: the popular vote doesn’t matter, and the winner is determined on a state-by-state basis according to the number of Electors casting their vote.
The existence and selection of Electors is provided for in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. So, to change the Electoral College system is a tricky thing and would require a constitutional amendment. When the constitution was written and ratified in the late 1780s, the Electoral college was devised as a tool to balance out the power of the more populated states: a national winner-takes-all approach would have advantaged the interests of states with bigger urban populations, and for the Founding Fathers, it was important to ensure that some power was held by rural, low-population states, and of course they also had to balance the power of slave states and free states to maintain national unity.
But a lot has changed since the 1780s, and demographic shifts in the 20th and 21st century reveal real weaknesses in the Electoral college system. No president in the 20th century managed to win victory in the Electoral College without also carrying the popular vote. This is true even in the notorious 1960 election where John F. Kennedy was accused of ‘stealing’ the election through Democratic rigging of the Chicago vote. That year, Kennedy won the popular vote by a mere 100,000 or so votes, but he won the Electoral College by 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral votes.
But in the 21st century, the story is very different. Famously, in 2000 Al Gore conceded victory to George W. Bush after the Florida count was decided against him. Bush took the Presidency with 271 Electoral College votes, despite winning only 47.9% of the popular vote to Gore’s 48.4%. In 2016, four years after criticizing the Electoral College via tweet, Donald Trump took the Presidency with a large Electoral College majority, but only 46% of the popular vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 48.1%.
Why does this happen? It goes back to the balance of power envisaged by the Founding Fathers. The system preserves the power of rural, less populous states (like Nevada and Arizona) against the dominant interests of more urban, more populous states (like California and New York). So, the vote weight of Nevada, with a population of 3 million and 6 Electoral College votes is about 1.35. But the vote weight of Pennsylvania, with a population of over 12.8 million, and 20 electoral votes is about 0.83. The Electoral College means that not all voters’ votes count equally.
That would be less divisive if the population was more evenly distributed, and if we could talk about a broad spread of voting values across the US. But the population is becoming less white, more urbanized, and more progressive. Often voting outcomes seem at odds with this. If the Presidential vote was calculated on a national winner-takes-all basis, you can be pretty sure that California and the more progressive East Coast, heavily populated states, would pick the winner every time. Nobody would care about Nebraska, or South Dakota. The existing system, however flawed, keeps these states in active political participation. As the country becomes more politically polarized, this is important. Political alienation encourages separatist mindsets, and we have seen in the recent past that this poses a real threat to national security. As much as we might complain that the Electoral College damages democracy, it serves a function and it is unlikely that political powers will seek to change it any time soon.
As I write this, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by 253 Electoral college votes to 214. He needs 270 to win. If Trump does overtake him to snatch victory, he will do so without a popular vote mandate, and to use his own words, this would be a disaster for democracy. If this does happen, he will continue this century’s trend of Republicans taking the White House while losing the popular vote. Only in 2004 has a Republican (G.W. Bush) won the Presidency with a popular vote majority. What this underscores is the inability of the Republican Party to appeal sufficiently to the majority feeling in the country. A party that appeals to a narrowing population base will eventually run out of steam: perhaps that is where real change is needed to protect democracy.