Scott Hoaby: In Defense of the Electoral College


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump walks to the stage at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida, U.S., September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Not long ago a contributor to the Forum argued that the Electoral College should be abolished, adding that whoever wins the popular vote should win the presidential election. Now that the election is over, academics and news pundits are again taking up this argument. I would like to challenge this notion that the electoral college should be abolished and assert that it does what is was it was supposed to do and this election is a good case in point. The contributor to the Forum also asserted that if the election was determined by popular vote, it would be more likely that candidates would campaign in North Dakota – this notion is almost certainly false.

For a presidential candidate to win the popular vote, but lose the electoral vote and therefore the election, the candidate must win by large margins in states with large populations while the candidate’s opponent must win by small margins in states that are large. Because of the winner-take-all format of the electoral system (for all states except Maine and Nebraska), there is no bonus for winning big in a state – a small margin of victory counts as much as a dominant win. Four times in our history a president has won the popular vote but has lost the electoral vote – the elections of 1876 (Hayes over Tilden), 1888 (Harrison over Cleveland), 2000 (Bush over Gore) and now in 2016 (Trump over Clinton).

(Jackson won the popular vote while losing the 1824 election, but not because he lost the electoral vote; while he had a plurality of electoral votes, he did not have a majority, so the selection of the president went to the House of Representatives and they voted for John Q Adams).

In this 2016 election, Clinton won in the state of California by a huge margin taking 61.5% of the vote to Trump’s 33.3%. Only in Hawaii (62.2%) and Washington DC (92.8%) did Clinton fare better.

California, by far, is the most populous state so Clinton had a significant popular vote margin over Trump there – garnering over 2.5 million more votes. The other states in which Clinton won by a landslide (57.5% of the vote) were New York, Massachusetts and Maryland (the 4th, 15th and 19th most populous states). Clinton also won big (over 55% of the vote) in Illinois and Washington, the 5th and 11th most populous states.

Trump won by a landslide in almost three times more states than did Clinton – thirteen states: WY, WV, TN, SD, OK, NE, ND, MS, LA, KY, ID, AR, and AL – but only one of these states, Tennessee, approaches in population that of the states that Clinton won by a landslide. Tennessee is the 17th most populous state. The other states in the list are the 50th, 38th, 46th, 28th, 37th, 47th, 32nd, 25th, 26th, 39th, 33rd, and 23rd most populous states. Of the populous states that Trump won – the biggest being Texas (2nd most), Florida (3rd), and Pennsylvania (6th) – Trump won by modest to small margins. Trump took Texas with 52.6% of the vote, but Florida by only 49.1% versus Clinton’s 47.8%, and Pennsylvania by 48.4% versus Clinton’s 47.6%.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]If presidents are decided by the popular vote, candidates can win by focusing on the population centers and most populated states and disregard the other parts of the country. Is this a good thing? I think not.[/mks_pullquote]

So what can we take from this? If presidents are decided by the popular vote, candidates can win by focusing on the population centers and most populated states and disregard the other parts of the country. Is this a good thing? I think not.

The Founders and others designed the Electoral College to provide three main advantages. One is that a person cannot be president without winning a majority of the votes (more than 50%), and in this case it is a majority of the electoral votes. Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote (more votes than the others), but she did not have a majority. (Many countries that use a popular vote system, such as France and Peru, require a candidate to win with a majority, so will have a runoff election of the top 2 candidates from the first election if the first round does not yield a majority). Whether one agrees with the method or not, the Electoral College is a majority vote system.

Second, the Electoral College, by granting each state a vote for each person they have in Congress, is designed to reflect the Great Compromise the Founders made to form the Legislature, which was and is a bicameral legislature consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate. Because the Senate by design favors the small states, the electoral college likewise favors the small states and gives them a little more say in the presidential election than they would have if it was decided by popular vote. In the electoral college, North Dakota has 3 of the 538 votes or 0.56% of the vote, and the ten smallest states have 32 of the 538 votes or 5.95% of the vote. If decided by popular vote, North Dakota would have a 0.24% say in who the president is, and the ten smallest states would have about a 2.68% of the say.

Third, the Founders decided upon the Electoral College system as a way to reduce the likelihood that the population centers would dominate each election. One does not get more electoral votes by winning in a landslide in a state than by winning with a small margin. Therefore there is no advantage in spending time, political capital, and money running up the score so to speak in a populated state. There is an advantage, however, for a candidate to fan out into other states once it appears he or she has majority support in a state. An implication of the electoral college (versus popular vote systems) is that population centers, and the elites that dominate the social, political, and economic norms of those areas, are less able to impose their values onto the smaller states under an electoral system.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The Electoral College system will continue to be criticized, but it is a better system for the smaller states in electing a president than would be a system by popular vote.[/mks_pullquote]

Therefore, contrary to the words of the contributor (whom I mentioned earlier), if the presidential election were decided by popular vote, there is less chance – not more as the contributor mentioned – that a presidential candidate would take an interest in North Dakota’s voters or the common sense values that its people bring to the conversation.

If this election of 2016 was decided by popular vote and a plurality vote, then yes Hillary Clinton would be our next president, as some North Dakotans wanted. However, the majority of voters in North Dakota did not want her as president. Instead the people of North Dakota got the person or the party that it wanted into the presidency. (I might add, to be transparent, that I voted a write-in for president).

Additionally, if the election were decided by popular vote, it would likely mean that the next president would have considered it a mandate to put priority in the political and social values, and in the economic policies, of California, New York, and the east coast elite classes, which is quite likely what half of the general electorate was voting against, or at least partly against in this election.

The Electoral College system will continue to be criticized, but it is a better system for the smaller states in electing a president than would be a system by popular vote.