People have strong opinions about the Electoral College — and rightly so. How we select the president of the United States is an important issue that deserves vigorous debate.
But ask most Americans, and you’ll find that there’s a general agreement: the Electoral College is an archaic system that doesn’t work for us anymore.
It’s undemocratic in that it sometimes selects a person who didn’t win the popular vote to become president. Its foundings were due to attempts to preserve the institution of slavery, and today it remains a mechanism that is institutionally racist. And it dilutes the votes of people from larger states, while inflating the weight of ballots from voters in small states, to the extent that a voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times more power to select the president than does a voter in California, according to HuffPost.
But efforts to end the Electoral College — through either a Constitutional amendment or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — are always confounded by one argument: that the Electoral College is necessary to prevent candidates from courting voters in just three or four states, or a small number of large cities with huge populations.
Those concerns, however, are unwarranted, based on the available data we have of past elections. A popular vote model would not shrink the map. In fact, there’s reason to believe the opposite is true.
The assertions that abolishing the Electoral College would somehow hurt smaller states have been made by many over the years, including by President Donald Trump. Before he ran for president in 2016, however, Trump was actually against the Electoral College, when it seemed like it was about to hand Obama an electoral victory on election night in 2012. Obama had secured the Electoral College win before all the popular vote ballots had been tabulated, and on TV screens across the nation people saw that his Republican rival Mitt Romney had more votes than Obama had earned at that point in the evening.
Trump blasted the Electoral College at that moment.
The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
Later on, of course, when all the votes had been added up, the numbers showed Obama won both the Electoral college and the popular vote, rendering Trump’s complaint as moot.
When he himself won in 2016 — without the consent of the popular vote — Trump changed his tune entirely on the matter.
The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2016
And in recent weeks, Trump has attacked efforts to change how we elect the president, insisting that larger states and cities “would end up running the country” if we went to a popular vote model.
Campaigning for the Popular Vote is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College. It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win. With the Popular Vote, you go to….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2019
….just the large States – the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power – & we can’t let that happen. I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2019
Are Trump’s assertions valid? Not really. In fact, not at all.
First, let’s look at the states. It’d take much more than “a few” to reach a 50 percent-plus one vote threshold to win the presidency (assuming a popular vote plan could be implemented that would require a candidate get a majority of voters). In fact, nine states — California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina — would be required in order to get over 50 percent of the U.S. population.
But a number of those states are battleground areas, places where a Democrat and a Republican candidate typically split the vote within 5 percentage points of each other. Even blue-as-can-be California includes a sizable portion of voters who voted for Hillary Clinton. In short, more states would be needed in order for a candidate to reach the 50 percent threshold because the states listed above don’t vote 100 percent for one party or the other.
With the Electoral College, however, electors chosen by the voters of those states do vote 100 percent for whoever wins that state overall, ignoring the votes of millions of citizens who had a different preference. The goal for candidates under our current system isn’t to win as many people across as many states as possible, as it would be under a popular vote, but rather to win more than the other candidate does in a select number of states with strategic value.
There is demonstrative proof of this: in 2016, 94 percent of all travel conducted by the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, including their running mates, took place in just 12 states. Two-out-of-three trips during the general election period of campaigning took place in just six states.
— Jason H. Moore, PhD (@moorejh) July 28, 2018
Would a popular vote for president be better? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes, especially if it’s a popular vote model where it would require the winner attain 50 percent of the vote (through a runoff or instant runoff election).
Let’s look to the major metropolitan areas across the U.S. to prove this point. It’s important to emphasize that these areas encompass more than just the primary cities they’re named for, but also the suburbs and surrounding areas as well (in fact, the 500 most-populated cities in the country only account for one-third of the entire U.S. population).
When we look at these metro areas, we see that candidates, in order to do the bare minimum of campaigning, would have to travel to at least 38 metropolitan areas across the country in order to reach a population total that represents over half of all voters. Those 38 metropolitan areas represent at least 24 states (possibly more, if you count the “boundary states” that these metro areas overlap), which is almost double the number of states traveled to by the candidates in 2016.
But again, this is only if we assume a single candidate can attain 100 percent of the vote in all of these areas — a feat that is incredibly unlikely to happen. What’s more likely to be the case is that candidates will have to court voters from other areas across the country in order to get to that 50 percent threshold.
What about rural areas? Won’t they be ignored under this type of voting system? There’s a case to be made that they may get more visibility in the campaign season than they get under what we see with the Electoral College.
Besides New Hampshire, none of the least populous states are considered “swing states” and worthy of travel to by candidates under our current model. What’s more, there’s no incentive to travel to rural areas even under the Electoral College — candidates are still trying to court the most voters out of the states they do travel to, and those voters still tend to be in cities.
If we moved to a popular vote model of campaigning, however, candidates wouldn’t be courting voters in the most populated areas of strategic swing states — instead, they’d have to court voters from all across America. Smart candidates would include trips to farms and campaign events in other rural areas if they wanted to show they had concern for voters outside of major city centers. There’s nothing incentivizing them to do so currently.
Critics of a change to a popular vote model of selecting the president try and argue that candidates would only travel or court voters from a small number of states, or that cities could somehow take away from the attention that rural areas are supposedly getting now under an Electoral College system. Those assertions are erroneous, based on the facts stated above.
If a popular vote for president is instituted, it should require some caveats. The best way to implement a popular vote system would be to require a 50 percent threshold for any eventual winner of the election, through a runoff election or an instant runoff ballot method.
Still, even if that threshold requirement isn’t included, the popular vote change would be immensely better than the current Electoral College that we have. A change is sorely needed, and the American people deserve to be able to pick who they want to run the country.