The Electoral College Isn’t Broken

In my post yesterday, I provided some steps to make elections more fair in this country, hopefully leading to a democracy that feels more representative of the actual voters in this country. One of the items I considered discussing, but ultimately decided against, was the Electoral College method for selecting our president. I personally think there isn’t an issue with the Electoral College in and of itself. The only time it seems to matter is when a president is elected without having one the popular vote, as was the case with Donald Trump in November.

Nevertheless, there has been a multi-state movement to change the way that we select our president in this country. The National Popular Vote is a compact between multiple states – one that won’t go into affect until after enough states sign on – that will award each state’s electoral votes based on the national popular vote. If such a compact was in place for the last election, Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency because some of the states that she technically lost (according to the popular vote in that state) would have had to vote for her because of what the national popular vote ended up being.

Confused yet?

The Electoral College isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination; the majority of people that didn’t vote for Donald Trump in Utah, for example, probably feel like their vote was completely wasted when he took the state with less than 50% of the popular vote here. But the Electoral College also ensures that it’s not simply large urban areas that determine the president of the country, forcing campaigns to visit Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere to ensure that they have a broad enough coalition of urban and rural voters in their corner to win an election.

For all of his faults as a person and candidate, Donald Trump seemed to understand this more than Hillary Clinton, placing special emphasis on visiting some of the rural areas where his message seemed to resonate more, while Clinton tried to focus on cities and other urban areas. He took advantage of the Electoral College, which any smart candidate would, and exploited some of the inherent flaws in the current system to pull out his victory.

All of that said, there are flaws with the Electoral College. In all but two states – Maine and Nebraska – the Electoral College simply votes for the winner of the popular vote within the state. For example, despite winning only 46% of the vote here in Utah, Donald Trump walked away with all six of our Electoral Votes. Maine and Nebraska apportion their electoral votes differently, giving 2 votes to the person that wins the state’s popular vote and the remainder based upon the individual winner of each Congressional District. This split disbursement allowed President Obama to win one of Nebraska’s electoral votes in 2008 –  as well as President Trump to win one of Maine’s in 2016 – despite either not winning the popular vote there.

If all the states had a similar system, the results would be different and presidential candidates might have to reconsider their campaign strategies. I don’t really like moving the Electoral College to match what Maine and Nebraska do exactly, but I have another alternative that might feel more representative of the popular vote, while still giving candidates credit for winning states and the portion of the vote within those states. These proportional results wouldn’t have won the election for Clinton in November, but would have also apportioned the electoral votes more in line with how the results came out in the individual states. It would also allow for stronger third parties to start winning electoral votes and make the path to the 270 required to win a bit more difficult.

Here’s how the last few elections would have shaken out under my system:

Election Year ACTUAL RESULTS PROPORTIONAL
DEM REP OTHER DEM REP OTHER
2008 365 173 0 295 243 0
2012 332 206 0 280 257 1
2016 232 306 0 257 272 9

What’s my system you ask? Without getting to into the weeds, it’s pretty much a modification on the Maine and Nebraska methods, but instead of basing it on Congressional districts, it is based on the proportion of the popular vote within the state. Each state victor receives 2 electoral votes for winning the popular vote in that state, then the remaining electoral votes are awarded based on the proportion of the vote received.

Still with me? Let’s look at a couple of states to see how this works out. In the previously mentioned Utah (my home state), Donald Trump wins the popular vote with his 46% of the vote (approximately 452,000 votes) and gets two electoral votes for his trouble. The remaining 4 electoral votes are proportionally given to other candidates: Trump gets another 2, Hillary Clinton gets 1 (28% of the vote), and independent candidate Evan McMullin gets 1 (21% of the vote). It’s not exact and requires some rounding, but I think you get the idea. Not only does this give Clinton credit for receiving some votes in Utah, it also allows a strong third-party candidate – in this case McMullin – to perform well enough to get an electoral vote.

If we look at a traditional “blue” state, we can see the opposite effect for the Republican candidate receiving credit for garnering some support but not quite winning. In Minnesota, a state won in dominating fashion twice by Obama and less so by Clinton in 2016, Trump is no longer shut out of receiving some of its 10 electoral votes. Clinton gets the 2 “winner” electoral votes for beating trump by nearly 45,000 votes, but the remaining votes are split down the middle because the result was so close and the best third-party candidate (Gary Johnson) only took 4% of the overall vote. Clinton still wins the electoral battle for winning the state, but instead of being up 10-0, the margin is a much closer 6-4.

When you apply this methodology across all states, you get the shift in the results seen in the above chart. Trump is still victorious (sad face emoji), but his Electoral College margin is much more narrow. Had Clinton been able to grab a few more votes, or one of the third-party candidates fared a little better, Trump could’ve been denied the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election outright. Then, the vote would have gone to Congress… and we would probably have a similar result, but at least it would be a better representation of how the individual states voted on Election Day.

Furthermore, third parties receive some recognition on the national level and might start being a viable option down the road if we go away from the winner-take-all method of winning electoral votes. The nine votes for Other in the chart above are McMullin’s previously mentioned vote from Utah and eight votes for Gary Johnson from seven different states (California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Texas). I would also like to think that something like this would lead to better participation by the electorate, but that’s something that is too hard to predict.

It’s not a perfect system, but if you are looking to drive engagement and participation, this might be one way to do it. If you really wanted to make all votes count, you could even award electoral votes on a fractional basis, so even the 11,553 people that voted for Trump in Washington, DC have their voice heard. But like the things I wrote about yesterday, the Electoral College is something that is going to be very hard to change overnight, and many of the states have no incentive to change to a proportional allotment of electoral votes. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting thought experiment in the least, even if it doesn’t actually show that it would change the results.

Until next time…

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