Can you tell what’s wrong with this map of the United States? I’ll give you a hint: Look near the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Spot the problem yet? A further hint: Look at the border of Wisconsin and Illinois as well as the Florida Panhandle. See it now? The Wisconsin-Illinois border is slightly more southern and the Florida Panhandle is slightly shorter.
Why am I looking at silly maps, you might say. What difference could it possibly make? Well, look below where I’ve added some familiar colors. That’s right. If the Wisconsin border were just a bit farther south and the Florida border a bit farther east, then Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency. In fact, it doesn’t even require moving the entire Wisconsin-Illinois border further south, but just moving Lake County, Illinois, four miles north of Northwestern University, into Wisconsin to have the same effect! All of these facts I discovered with a small tool for exploring the Electoral College I call Redraw the States.
As we’re all familiar with by now, the United States does not elect the
President by popular vote. Instead, each state nominates a number of
“electors” to the Electoral College. This group of people then actually elects the president according to the rules of (mostly) the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. Essentially, the candidate with the majority of electoral votes wins. The number of electors a state gets is equal to the number of representatives it has in the House of Representatives plus the number of senators it has, which is always two. Moreover, the District of Columbia gets three votes, in accordance with the Twenty-Third Amendment. All in all, that means that a candidate needs to win 270 electoral votes in order to be elected president.
Technically it is up to the electors to decide how they cast their ballot, but long-standing tradition dictates that the winner of a plurality of votes in each state receives all the electoral votes from that state. So even though
Donald Trump only got 45.9% of the vote in Utah, he still gets all six of their electoral votes. And even though Donald Trump only beat Hillary Clinton by 10,000 or so votes in Michigan, he will receive all 16 of Michigan’s electoral votes.
(Maine and Nebraska use a slightly different system to apportion electoral votes, but we’ll ignore them for this discussion and this tool.)
This brings up an important question: How stable are the results of the Electoral College if we just slightly change the borders of various states. Why would this matter? Well, if Hillary Clinton had just gotten 10,000 more votes in Michigan, then she would get all of the states 16 votes instead of Trump. Or if she’d gotten another 15,000 votes in Wisconsin, she would be granted all 10 of that state’s electors. So if we can move some nearby counties dominated by Democrats into Wisconsin and Michigan, and on the other and, move some counties dominated by Republicans out of Florida, then Secretary Clinton would have picked up those states.
It turns out that there are many combinations of a very small number of counties that would flip the election from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. For instance, moving Lake County into Wisconsin gives Secretary Clinton 10 more votes. You can flip Pennsylvania by moving Mercer County (home of Trenton and Princeton) and Burlington County (home of Fort Dix) into Pennsylvania, giving Clinton Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. In fact, if New Jersey had just given Camden, the beleaguered sister city of Philadelphia, to Pennsylvania, Clinton would gain 21 electoral votes as our quirky way
of allocating congressmen would have given Pennsylvania one of Texas’s representatives.
Many people have argued that the Electoral College is a check on the cities, but this is belied by its instability under extremely tiny changes to the map. When moving three counties from one state to a neighboring state swings the election, it seems that the real lesson to be learned isn’t one of deliberate
protection, but one of capriciousness. Unlike the gerrymandering that plagues congressional districts, this sort of “cracking” of Democratic support is due to historical accident. Some would argue that this makes it more palatable, but I would argue that it undermines faith in the “fairness,” and thus the legitimacy, of the system.
If the Electoral College were actually to perform the function of checking the cities, we would need to completely redraw the states. The most radical change we would need to make would be introducing the notion of city-states, much as Germany has done with Berlin and Hamburg, or as we have already done with the District of Columbia. But such a system, coupled with the Electoral College, would, in fact, guarantee that the cities would never win an election. (Play around with Redraw the States and try to, for instance, get Hillary less than 150 electoral votes.)
Or perhaps you could let each congressional district get a single vote. But the success of gerrymandering shows that this, too, would lead to perpetual
Practical democracy is, in the end, much less about voters expressing policy preferences than leaders obtaining consent to govern. And in any system where arbitrary groups of voters are collectively given a single vote, there will always be corner cases where one candidate can best her opponent by 2.2 million votes and still lose.
As long as we are directly electing the president, let’s finally abolish the Electoral College and use the popular vote, so that moving a few thousand square miles of territory around won’t make the difference between outcomes.
[Editor’s Note: All vote totals displayed in this post account for the fact that the Second Congressional District of Maine went for Trump in this election. However, the Redraw the States tool does not. Also, thanks to Joe Germuska for pointing out that Evanston isn’t in Lake County. Finally, I have collected several of my favorite maps here.]