The Electoral College and The 26% Popular Vote

While the calls for the elimination of the Electoral College as a fundamentally undemocratic institution are often dismissed as sour grapes for Hillary’s loss, that’s not exactly a strong argument for its existence or continuation. After all, the intuitive reaction to a mechanism for electing a president that, as it’s argued, ignores the will of they majority by over-valuing the votes of sparsely populated small, rural states, certainly seems to emit an unpleasant whiff.

Jamelle Buie says it’s not just about Trump, even if he’s the poster boy for how the EC went horribly wrong.

In February, I wrote about the Electoral College, its origins and its problems. Whatever its potential merits, it is a plainly undemocratic institution. It undermines the principle of “one person, one vote,” affirmed in 1964 by the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims — a key part of the civil and voting rights revolution of that decade. It produces recurring political crises. And it threatens to delegitimize the entire political system by creating larger and larger splits between who wins the public and who wins the states.

Ross Douthat tries his hand at offering a rationale for its current existence, its historical justification notwithstanding.

Instead the Electoral College really just does one big thing that a popular-vote system wouldn’t do: It makes it possible for close elections to yield a president supported by a minority of voters, especially in circumstances where that minority is regionally concentrated rather than diffuse.

Without the EC, candidates could ignore small states, rural voters, the minority, altogether, as the win would be concentrated where the most people are, and that’s cities and coasts. What Douthat contends is that the EC creates an incentive for candidates to take the concerns of voters in Montana seriously, as well as those in New York City.

In this way, each would provide a moderating force on the other, so neither one could exert unwarranted control over the other and preclude their views and interests from being ignored, if not ripped to shreds by the majority’s radicalization and rejection of less woke norms.

It’s an interesting proposition. While democracy demands that the will of the majority prevail, it also seeks to blunt the tyranny of the majority to the exclusion of the interests of the minority. Equal protection is a virtue, even if its not generally considered to relate to political views rather than suspect classifications.

But there’s a hole in both puzzles that’s ignored.

Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy. As low turnout is usually attributed to political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy, “established” democracies tend have higher turnout than other countries. However, voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than most established democracies.

The last election, being particularly contentious, produced about a 58% turnout. That means that 42% of eligible voters didn’t vote. One reason is that the EC system makes the effort to vote in a state where one is clearly in the minority futile. New York State? Even if every voter in Tompkins County shows up and votes twice, they won’t seize the day from New York City voters. So if you live in Trumansburg, why bother? Your vote won’t count.

There are many proposals floated to increase voter participation. Make it a national holiday, so no one will have to miss work to vote. Make it a crime not to vote, so anyone preferring not to have the SWAT team break down the door will go to the polls. It is a responsibility of citizenship, on the one hand, and for those disenfranchised by law, their deprivation of the vote is a painful reminder that the must suffer the consequences of politics while being denied any voice at all.

But can we force people to vote? Can we force people to care, to learn, to become sufficiently politically astute so as to make their vote useful to the governance of this nation? Remember, the average IQ is 100, and these are our neighbors, our voters. And yes, they are and should be entitled to vote, even if we might prefer not to put our futures in their hands. Democracy is, by definition, the lowest common denominator. But if many of these nice but politically ignorant voters decide they don’t feel like it, can’t be bothered, should this be a matter of concern?

The hole in the analysis is that we characterize the decision to exercise the franchise by about half our potential voters as the “popular vote,” when it’s really not. We rationalize away the problem by the fact that it’s their choice to vote or not, and if they choose not to vote, well, that’s a vote too. (Cue Rush.) But it’s not a legitimate argument, since it ignores the fact that the rules of our extant system include the Electoral College, thus reducing a state’s influence to that of its majority and leaving the minority with little reason to spend the time, waste the gas, to go to the polls.

Hillary may have gotten more votes than Trump based on raw national numbers, but she did not win the majority of the American voting population. Nor, obviously, did Trump.  Clinton received the votes of 26% of eligible voters in America. Does that make her the popular winner? Can there be a popular winner when the rules of the game keep voters reflecting a minority of a state’s views home, well aware their votes won’t matter?

If the Electoral College, not to mention the Senate (that means don’t mention it), was to disappear for the next election, would we be better off with a voter turnout where no candidate won more than 50% of the eligible voters? After all, election by less would not serve to reflect the will of the majority of Americans. Or is a 26% win sufficient because 48% couldn’t be bothered to show? Of course, it could be that there would be a massively greater turnout in the absence of the EC, but then there’s no such rush to vote in elections now where the highest vote-getter wins.

49 thoughts on “The Electoral College and The 26% Popular Vote

  1. Rich

    It might be better if more people voted but we’d still be voting for the same trash. It might be better if we could remove some power from the presidency and not keep trying to make an all powerful king

  2. KP

    In Australia it is compulsory to vote, the State elections were this weekend. I can’t recommend it, it still results in a bunch of jackasses being in power, and it shows a great sense of irony when people say “Australia is a free country and a great democracy”.

    The size of electorate boundaries make the number of voters about the same in each electorate, which I assume does the same as your electoral college.

    1. that david from Oz

      I wasn’t going to comment at all on this topic, having nothing to add, but to clarify, in the Australian system (and lets forget about states, they should be abolished), at the Federal level the Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats, which means there is at least a vague hope the government of the day will have a chance to enact some of the policies they got elected on (don’t get me started on the Australian Senate). No direct election means no chance of getting a nutbag like your Orange Cheeto Overlord.

      Really, not fair to compair Oz to US; we only have 27 million people, hugely concentrated along the coastlines, with only farmers and the indigenous living in the interior . . . hmmm . . . only two major parties with fringe . . . no . . . how about . . . guns – christ don’t start that again . . . nup . . . as you were, I’m going to the pub. Federal election in May!

      1. SHG Post author

        You should have seriously considered sticking with you initial impulse. But then, what would Finland do?

  3. Keith

    You claim that “Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy”.

    But you never explain why that is.

    Part of the absurdity in the critiques and the support of the EC is how many observers tend to claim (without much support) that these kinds of fundamental truths are, well, truthy.

  4. Chad Stearns

    The electoral college doesnt make voting any more pointless. You correctly point out that your vote “doesnt count” when you cant change the outcome of your state, but if the election was just a popular vote in the whole nation, you could say the same thing: “Theres no point in voting when you cant change the outcome of your national vote”.

    It makes no difference if you are a minority in a state, or if you are just one voter in an entire nation. No election has gotten anywhere close to coming down to just one vote. Therefore, no voter could reasonably assume the election outcome will depend on their participation. From the perspective of each individual voter, the election goes the same way no matter what they do; and no matter if its in an electoral college or a popular vote.

    1. SHG Post author

      But will the “one voter” believe that he’s not the only voter who would vote the way he chooses to vote? If so, then his vote may not “win” per se, but he contributes to a win that would not otherwise happen but for him and all the other “one voters” who vote like him.

      1. Chad Stearns

        Wanting to be on the winning team of a state electoral vote seems closer to the truth. But, even closer to the truth is the theory that people want to be on the winning team of the entire election. If people just want to win, then, I would think they dont care all that much how their votes count. Whether they are voting in system A or system B doesnt change much for them.

        It must be more complicated than merely wanting to win. People still go out and vote when it looks like they will lose (Trump looked like he was going to lose). I lived in Manhattan during the election, and I knew some Trump voters. If anyone on this Earth feels like a winner, they do.

        My theory is that voting does the same thing for people as does tweeting. Its all about big moral statements to your friends. It helps to win, but, if you just like big moral statements, then you can still vote, lose the election, and come out personally ahead because you like having the identity of being a Trump person or being a Clinton person.

  5. Richard Kopf


    I thought everyone loved diversity. I am now speaking particularly of geographic diversity.

    Your readers and others would be well advised to look at a red/blue state map of the election. The map is stunning. Trump trounced Clinton when it comes to geographical diversity in the EC.

    From Hawaii to Texas to Florida to the industrial midwest and then to flyover country. Mrs. Clinton was unable to convince a diverse cadre of voters of the righteousness of her cause.

    The old guys (the Founders) were pretty smart. Those old guys (well, really, dead guys) thought the electoral rights of the mob should only go so far. Since I now count myself as an old but not yet dead guy, that makes me feel all warm inside.

    All the best.


    PS Anyone who appends a critical reply to this comment will be considered to have engaged in elder abuse.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some wag might reply that million acre open fields shouldn’t have the same electoral weight as a 72-story building in a big city. But I wouldn’t be such a wag, because I would not abuse my elders.

          1. Richard Kopf

            Well then, does Casa SHG nurture free-range cows?

            After all, with your JD 4 x 6 Gator, you could easily hall bales of hay.

            1. SHG Post author

              My accountant suggested that just the other day, but had no answer when I inquired who would touch their udders.

      1. Jim Tyre

        Yebbut, a 72 story building in a big city is more likely to be an office building than a residential one. Voters vote based on their places of residency..

        Tho, a constitutional amendment should be made for BigLaw associates, since they do live in their offices.

      2. mb

        Some wag (well, probably just me) might respond to that and argue that if a large fraction of the people in that 72 story building are not citizens, and are subject to deportation at any time, then we should only allow the handful of Democrats deciding those elections to count 3/5 of those other people for representation. Ya know, like the last time Democrats inflated their districts with a class of people with no rights.

    2. Ross

      Judge, the Founders weren’t qualified to create a nation, since they were all older White guys, some of whom actually owned slaves(the horror! Didn’t they know they would be judged by the standards of today, and try to live up to them?). In fact, they and their ancestors, should have stayed back in Britain(mostly), or whatever European hell hole they came from, leaving North America to be developed by the indigenous peoples in a manner that was more fair and sustainable, resulting in a nation where the woke of today could live happily without the specter of cis-gendered white privilege ruining everything.

      Sadly, there’s someone, somewhere, who believes the drivel I just wrote.

    3. Jeff Davidson

      Hello Judge Kopf,

      if the EC operated as the Founders wanted, who knows what the geographic diversity would look like? If as intended voters chose electors based on who they believed were the wisest and best qualified citizens of their state to make the presidential choice then either HRC or Trump or someone else might have won all of the electoral votes, or the geographic distribution of the votes might have looked quite different.

      Best regards…

  6. losingtrader

    Here’s an easy solution to low voter turnout: There should distribution of a Powerball ticket to everyone who votes .

    The more elections, the more chances you have to win!
    Yes, it favors largely poor minorities , so it’s all social -justicy too !

    What does this have to do with the Electoral College? Beats me.

    I’m hoping for an insult I can add to the list.

    1. SHG Post author

      Oh crap. That’s actually not a bad idea at all. How sad for you that you’ll now have to wait another full year.

  7. Ken

    I think most of the arguments against the Electoral College are disingenuous; if the other side won the proponents and opponents would generally flip (there’s always the occasional true believer). If the ones arguing were truly interested in empowering the people they could act within the current system and encourage your voters in Trumansburg to participate by adopting the split electoral vote system that Maine and Nebraska have. There’s nothing that says a state has to be winner take all. Of course, this will never happen because if you look at the Red/Blue county map from the 2016 election it was even worse for Clinton than the state version that RGK mentions above. Only 16 counties out of 62 in New York chose Clinton. If their votes could mean something the folks in Trumansburg might show up at the polls in force and *gasp* Trump might have gotten an electoral vote or two of New York’s 29. The same, but reversed, might have happened for a couple of Texas’ 36.

    Personally, I think the EC is a crude but necessary tool that balances the tyranny of the national majority with needs of local majorities in areas of the country which would otherwise be effectively disenfranchised. Until somebody shows me a better tool for accomplishing the same thing, I’m okay with it.

    1. SHG Post author

      There were people who argued long before Trump that the EC should be abolished, and I credit them with being sincere in their views. But if the outcome was reversed, this would not be a subject of current discussion in polite circles.

  8. John Towers

    The EC is not needed in democracy. But since you live in a Representative Republic, the electoral college system makes. The question needed to be asked is why did the states surrender so much of their power to the federal authority.

  9. John Barleycorn

    If only they handed out Silly Putty instead of “I Voted” stickers…

    P.S. I have been turning a 10lbs sack of potatoes into lefse, toped with stupid amounts of butter and just the right sprinkling of sugar before rolling them up and piercing them with florescent colored cocktail swords, as my contribution to the baked goods table at my local polling place for the last six years or so.

    The 10lbs of lefse always goes even during bond issue only ballots but after reading this post, perhaps I should switch that up and stop giving the voters what they “want” but what they “need” in order to digest the entire concept of “voting” as well as some of the items left on the baked goods table? Suggestions?*

    *Seven years ago I was threatened with arrest for dropping off a five gallon bucket, to sit next to the coffee urn, full of one ounce bottles of vodka with three crayons (to represent my fine states electoral votes) taped around the bottles with blue painters tape.

    I have recently been thinking about fourteen crayons, to represent the 14th Amendment, tightly bound with rolled up instructions inside on how to cheat on an IQ test but perhaps I should substitute the instructions with a photo of Frank Zappa on a bulldozer instead?

      1. John Barleycorn

        Not just the contents, the bucket too!

        And those sneaky bastards never even responded to my letter about wanting the bits and pieces of my blue painters tape AND the bucket back.

  10. Jay

    The EC makes political parties care about states individually, rather than the individual. In that way it should keep the outcome more conservative, as a radical might move a majority of people across the nation but have a hard time convincing a majority in each state.

    We have two fundamental problems with that. The first is that our political parties are and have been at roughly a deadbeat for supporters nationally, so why not just let them go head to head? Seems pointlessly complex to have an EC.

    The bigger issue, all respect to the good judge, is that moderate outcomes favor the status quo. And the status quo is necessarily focused on short term issues and does not do well dealing with future problems. The issue of the environment likely cannot be fixed by a moderate system. Same with health care, because we short change even our future selves.

    There’s actually a good article on the BBC right now by Roman Krznaric on the second issue.

    That said there are likely ways to fix both issues without getting rid of the EC which otherwise does a decent job of preventing populist candidates out of power. Well, till now anyway.

  11. REvers

    Isaac Asimov came up with the solution to this in 1955. The story is called Franchise and it is about the 2008 election. As you might imagine, it’s downloadable from the Intartubez. I have no idea about any copyright issues, though.

    You will LOVE the name of the protagonist.

    1. SHG Post author

      So here’s the problem. Your reference is enticing, but since I can’t do anything about it at the moment, have no clue when or if I will, and nobody else reading your comment who can’t reach the story, has gained an iota from your comment. If only you could have made the point rather than merely referred to it, it might have been a fascinating reference. Instead, it informs no one. So sad, given how much I like Asimov.

      1. Grant

        From memory, Franchise is the ‘one man, one vote’ system.

        There is one man in America who gets picked to vote as a representative of the population, and the outcome of a full election is predicted from that vote.

        1. LocoYokel

          not just the full election, every election from local to national across the whole country. It’s bizarre, from back in the early days of computing when IBM still thought that “someday the world might need a whole 5 computers but never more than that” The premise is that the supercomputer basically running the country could predict just about everything but the exact way the voters would vote based on the human psyche. but by questioning/interviewing one “perfectly representative voter” it could extrapolate all the other votes in the country.

          1. SHG Post author

            Sorry about trashing your comment with the full contents of Asimov’s story, but we can’t do that here for a variety of reasons. Your thought was appreciated, but the execution was a problem.

  12. Hunting Guy

    Rhetorical question.

    If we got rid of the EC, how long would it be until we got rid of the 1st and 2nd amendment?

      1. MelK

        To be honest, I’m struggling to find a (single) topic in this piece.

        Electoral college? Yes, it’s great and it sucks, depending on your goals.
        Low voter turnout? The folks who are paid to ask why folks didn’t vote aren’t telling us that “because of the electoral college” rates highly enough to get its own bar on the graph, and “because my vote doesn’t matter” seems largely (but not entirely) agnostic to which team you’re on.
        Informed voting? There used to be a Civics class, but even in high school, it didn’t get emphasized. And there are no booster shots.

        Maybe I’ll just settle for “the whole electoral college/popular vote thing is too complicated for a single viewpoint.” *sigh*

        1. SHG Post author

          Sometimes, the “off-topic” is easier to discern from the glaring absence of anything remotely relating to a collateral issue. Had this been a post about “what are the consequences of opening the Constitution to amendment to rid ourselves of the Electoral College,” then maybe the question of exposing other part to amendment would be related.

          But the inability of a reader to reduce it to something they, personally, can wrap up in a sentence doesn’t mean that they are freed by their incapacity to indulge their most unrelated whims. Usually, lack of capacity is good reason to say nothing rather than say whatever pops into one’s head.

  13. John Neff

    The election of 1800 was the acid test of the EC and it failed the test. It was modified but the prevailing view is that it can’t be replaced and we have to suffer the consequences of a close electoral election.

    “Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy.” I would replace robust with informed. The low caliber of the candidates was a major factor in the last election and I think the discussion of the EC is an attempt to change the subject.

  14. Jardinero1

    Multiple levels of question begging are required for every argument against the electoral college. 1. The first is that majority rule is preferred(corollary 1: everyone should get to vote; corollary 2: everyone’s vote should matter). 2. We live in a democracy. Really? 3. The executive branch should represent the majority will(the “executive” branch; why?). 4. The states, intra, are not as effective or as representative at providing policy and services, as the states, inter. 5. The founders did not anticipate the winning candidate would not get a majority of the vote.

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, some of these reflect some basic understandings of how we’re supposed to work, particularly in light of some of our favored aspirational platitudes. An interesting point was made by brother Bennett, that the Senate isn’t very democratic, the Supreme Court isn’t at all democratic, and yet we should do away with the EC so the presidency can be? While we all know this is a republic rather than a democracy, maybe even that is stretching things a bit.

      1. Jardinero1

        When did democracy become such a thing? Empirically and historically, when you examine the data, you will find that the more democratic(small d) a political unit becomes, the worse becomes the welfare of its citizens. In the USA, if you look at a state such as California, they are the closest you get to democracy; with government by referendum, easy registration, easy voting, and lately, legalized vote harvesting. The state is devolving into a basketcase. I know results aren’t everything, but still.

  15. Billy Bob

    My problem is this: I went to several colleges in my yuth, …grade-uated from two of em. Hated the whole bloody enterprise, a waste of time and tuition–or so I thought at the time.

    No Fortune Cookie company interviewed or hired me, those “organization men”, mentally ill baaasdtards. Can U say, I’ve Been Moved? That was before Hi-Tech was hi-wreck.

    Hint: Big Black and Blue, once a “blue chip” where white shirts were de rigueur. So here’s my point. If this so-called electoral collage is not a real college, what are we talking about? Either call in the fraternities, , or, get rid of this fictional college. Can U say Kung Foo Fight?!?

    We favor getting rid of the electric college, and the Federal Reserve.Bank (which is not a bank any more than the electoral collage is a college.) It’s two complicated and makes no sense, …, hmm, unless you are of a Byzantine frame of mind and subscribe to the Rube Goldberg philosophy of life in the slow lane. (I.e., make things more difficult than they need be.)

    Now if we could only get rid of “legacy candidates” to our most prestigious electoral colleges,…?! That would be the Cat’s Meow.

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