The Not-So-Popular Vote

The perceived “solution” for the aging Electoral College may cause more problems than people realize.

The 2016 election is over. Donald Trump won the electoral college while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. It’s the second time this century the outcome didn’t reflect the actual vote result, so there’s been a lot of recent discussion surrounding the apparent “failure” of the electoral college in modern American politics. The easiest and most talked about solution involves scrapping the Electoral College and just relying on the plain popular vote to determine who runs our country for the next four years. Since this change is not an easy one for our government to make, it’s something we should take seriously. So let’s comb through its possible effects, because as of now, I’m unsure if this is really a “fix” for a system that hasn’t yet been (but may very well soon be) “broken”.

Our New, New Political Geography

The most innovative change would be that we would no longer be able to use this map when discussing the election. Under the popular vote, STATES DO NOT MATTER. The mechanism erases the imaginary lines we’ve drawn that build our regional identities. Instead, our map would look more like this. Campaigns would shift their focus from states to these emerging “megaregions” to help locate areas where a large amount of voters are clustered together.

If we were to rewind 2016 and play under these new rules Donald Trump would have been forced to campaign heavily in New York City to ensure that he doesn’t lose too badly to Hillary among the 23 million people that live there. Hillary would have had to ditch rallies in rural Iowa in favor of an increased presence in Houston to keep the margin close in deep-red Texas. In short, the campaign focus will shift from states to cities, with rural areas getting the short end of the stick.

This leads to one of the biggest issues I have with switching to a focus on the popular vote: cities already have immense economic and cultural power over our country. Mass media, jobs, ethnic diversity, technology; the power of all of these important facets of society is already concentrated in cities. This election was punctuated by a failure to understand and address the needs of rural America. Yet our first proposal to “fix” things is to take away the only opportunity that these people have to make themselves heard…?

That’s a problem.

As vitally important as it is in our democracy, clinging to “one person, one vote” leads government to prioritize the needs of cities over the needs of less urbanized areas as a result of limited resources. It’s too easy to create a scenario where the two leading candidates are fighting over who has more of a “cities-first” platform while priorities important to rural voters are left untouched. Why would a candidate visit the failing Rust Belt towns of Youngstown, OH or Flint, MI when their time and money would be better spent running up the numbers in prosperous Chicago? Why would any candidate focus on agriculture proposals if the most pressing matter to urban voters is technology? The worst-case scenario is built in conjunction with our recent focus on cities in other aspects of life. Cities would become the ultimate symbol of inequality in our country. The people deemed most “important” during elections would be those living in the densest places, but if you can’t afford to live in the city you’re effectively ignored by candidates who purportedly want to be a president for “all Americans”.

In Congress, we already have a smart system in place that balances the urban-rural divide fairly well. In the Senate, each state is represented by two people. But the House is much more proportional: the Los Angeles area has more than 15 representatives in the House, the entire state of Montana only has one. This is how things should be, LA should have more of a say in government to uphold the “one person, one vote” doctrine. But our founding fathers understood that there is no way to perfectly fit this ideal doctrine into our not ideal society. That’s why they came up with the Senate: to offset the outsize role more populous locations can have in the House. Unfortunately, we can’t quite use this same model when picking presidents, so we’re gonna have to find some type of compromise.

One step forward, Two steps back

On top of this, a popular vote campaign necessitates big-money politics, further entrenching our two-party system, disenfranchising third parties and building a stronger case for keeping things around like the controversial Citizens United ruling.

Under the popular vote, California is king. If you fail in California, there’s not much of a way out of the hole simply because the population is so large compared to the rest of the country. (For reference, Clinton beat Trump in California by 4 million votes, that’s the equivalent of the ENTIRE voting-eligible population of the state of Wisconsin.) The problem is that running a campaign in California is extremely costly. First there are the incredibly important media markets of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angeles Area, and the San-Diego metro area. Running ads and holding events in these markets is incredibly expensive. Then to add to it, you still have many other not-quite-as-populated areas like the Central Valley, Sacramento, and Northern California that still need some attention to keep the margin close.

Once you’re done budgeting for California, you face the same headache in Texas and Florida, states with large land areas and multiple population centers. Third party candidates would face an even tougher battle under the popular vote since many wouldn’t have the money to run a competitive campaign in these three expensive states.

The metric that’ll become paramount in these new campaigns is finding the right balance of buying the cheapest ads that are seen by the most people. If you’re aiming for the popular vote, it doesn’t make economic sense to run ads or events in rural areas or places with declining populations, not unless you’ve already got your campaign up and running in enough of the major cities. (Ironically, this means you only go rural if your campaign is flush with urban donations.) Naturally, this would change the tone of campaigns, as candidates would shift to appeal to city dwellers as their base and would only glance at rural areas late in the game since these places don’t hold enough people to make a noticeable difference in the end vote count.

Many, Many Unknowns

Despite all of my assumptions above, we really don’t know how changing the metric for selecting our president will change how the public votes in presidential elections.

A transfer to the popular vote may shake things up in states like mine. Maryland is one of the bluest states around these days when it comes to presidential elections. The last time we voted Republican was in 1988. The prevailing attitude in my community when it’s time to pick a president is that there’s not much of a point to voting: Republicans think their vote is useless because they’re outnumbered by registered Democrats and many apathetic would-be Dem voters don’t bother turning out because they know that their state has little chance of turning red. It’s the classic electoral college case of “my vote doesn’t really matter, so why bother?” But under the popular vote, Maryland Republicans would feel a renewed sense of power and would probably turnout in larger numbers. Democratic turnout would likely rise as well since waiting in line for election day would no longer be seen as time wasted. Shifting to the popular vote will likely increase turnout across the board, but who it would benefit is anyone’s guess.

Overall, I don’t (yet) have an issue with switching to using the popular vote to determine who becomes our president. There are so many variables involved that it’s almost impossible to accurately predict how much (or how little) our country would change as a result.

What I take issue with is this sense that this would “fix” our “broken” system. It doesn’t. It simply moves the target, forcing candidates to adjust their strategies, and produces a whole new set of winners and losers. Cities have been the big winners so far in the 21st century, which in turn means that our less urbanized areas have lost a lot. I’m skeptical if we need to expand this dominance to the political sphere as well.

I do believe that the inauguration of Donald Trump will do a lot to confirm the idea that the Electoral College is “broken”. Not because he won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, but because of the lack of debate among electors on who should actually become our president.

The Electoral College was put in place because the United States is a representative democracy. We elect the people who represent us to make our decisions. The founders did this because they were afraid of direct democracy. Allowing the full populace to make decisions without any safety net was risky in the early days of America (and still is somewhat today). Not only because many weren’t fully educated to understand the things that they would need to vote on, but also because our herd is susceptible to populist tactics that utilize our fear, anger, or any emotion to capture power. Donald Trump is the candidate that the Electoral College was designed to prevent from taking office. As tough as it is for electors to say “Hey America, you made a horrible decision. We’re gonna have to fix this…” this is one of those times where it is painfully obvious that there should be a loooooooooooong discussion instead of a blind commitment to follow the hordes of angry, afraid, and uneducated voters who voted for Trump. The Electoral College would be “broken” if it is no longer used in the way that it was intended and it looks like its set to break on December 19th. It wasn’t created in an attempt to equalize the power of cities vs. rural areas in government, it was created to neutralize our understandably human weaknesses that are exposed in the democratic process.

This election season has forced us to ask a lot of questions, but one of the biggest sits in front of us today: Do we have enough faith in our country to move toward a direct democracy? If so, how do we move in this direction in a way that is truly equitable? And if not, what reforms are needed to create a system that exercises the will of the people but leaves room for our leaders to correct our mistakes?