A National Popular Vote Is A Flawed Solution

The Electoral College works, but the winner-take-all method needs fixing.

Dan Gizzi
Dan Gizzi
Nov 6, 2020 · 10 min read

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Donald Trump by almost 3 million votes (or 48% vs 45.9% of votes). However, obviously, Donald Trump won the electoral college 306–232. This scenario — where the winner of the election lost the popular vote — happened four other times in history. In the 1824 election, John Q. Adams was essentially elected by the House of Representatives. Although Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, nobody secured enough electoral votes to win. Thus, the rules followed the 12th Amendment where the US House of Representatives decided the vote.

In the 1876 election, perhaps the most controversial ever, Republican Rutherford Hayes won even though he lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was ultimately decided by the Compromise of 1877, where Hayes agreed to serve only one four-year term as President and not to seek re-election. The Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. Thus, power in the South was ceded to Democratic Redeemers, who went on to pursue their agenda of returning the South to a political economy resembling that of its pre-war condition, including the disenfranchisement of black voters.

In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but ultimately lost to Benjamin Harris. Finally, in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by an infinitesimal 0.51% but lost the election to George W. Bush. The results of this election infamously hinged on Florida.

Look, I’m not here to say the Electoral College is perfect, but it does generally provide for fairer elections than a popular vote would. Many arguments against the Electoral College seem to follow the same formula, where criticism of the Electoral College is rarely balanced with an analysis of whether or not a popular vote would do a better job. A popular vote provides an illusion of fairness because it is, indeed, a purer form of democracy. However, it is the balance of direct democracy with republicanism that truly provides for just electoral processes.

Electors vote as pledged 99% of the time

A common argument, or realistically a misconception, against the Electoral College is that it is a corrupt system where the electors don’t have to actually vote for who they are “supposed to” based on the popular votes of their constituents. So what happens if an elector doesn’t vote as promised? State laws may impose a fine on an elector who fails to vote according to the statewide or district popular vote, force an elector to vote for the candidate they pledged to vote, or disqualify an elector who violates his or her pledge and provide a replacement elector. Practically, it’s simply poor politics to not vote as promised. Historically, electors vote as pledged more than 99% of the time.

Those that do break their promise are commonly referred to as “faithless electors.” What many people fail to realize is that the Electoral College wasn’t some Republican conspiracy to give Trump the 2016 Presidential election. In 2016, there were six attempted faithless electors, but only three succeeded.

  • In Hawaii one of the state’s four electors cast a vote for Sanders instead of Clinton.
  • In Texas, of the state’s 38 electors, one voted for Kasich and one for Ron Paul. A third elector resigned and was replaced by an alternate, who voted for Trump.
  • In Washington, four of the state’s electors voted against Clinton. Three voted for Colin Powell, and one for Faith Spotted Eagle.

Regardless, even in 2016, faithless voters have never been significant enough to actually sway an election. As said earlier, electors vote as pledged more than 99% of the time.

Is the Electoral College a residual institution of slavery?

The origins of the Electoral College are certainly interesting to discuss, but it can be superfluous because arguments mostly rely on interpretations of what the framers mentioned or might have been thinking. Thus, it is much more fruitful to discuss the actual merits of the Electoral College in contemporary America. Nonetheless, let’s discuss origins.

Most opponents of the Electoral College claim that it was created to uphold slavery. An article published in The Atlantic argues that

more than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.

In fact, this is only partially true, and even a popular vote would’ve been restricted to only white men who met certain property qualifications.

There was a lot of controversy over choosing the best way to elect the president, and the Electoral College wasn’t created until much later in the Convention—after the Three-Fifths Clause was approved. Also important to note, is that although James Madison (himself a southerner) thought that a popular vote was the “fittest,” the idea was struck down by both northerners and southerners multiple times. They feared pure democracy because of the risks of mob rule tyranny and uninformed voters being taken advantage of. The real argument came down to choosing between an electoral system or congressional election.

In fact, the only states voting “nay” on the initial vote of adopting an electoral system were North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia — the three most ardently proslavery states in the convention. Instead, they supported the alternative of having Congress choose the president because it would provide the South with more power over choosing the president. The electoral system wasn’t revived until a dispute broke out, and a special committee created the electoral system as we know it.

Did slavery play a role in the formation of the Electoral College? Certainly, but that’s simply because slavery, unfortunately, existed. It played a role in everything. It played a part in the formation of the Electoral College, but it wasn’t a central issue. So, to say that the purpose of the Electoral College was to uphold slavery is not correct.

The Benefits of The Electoral College

The Electoral College is better than the popular vote because it preserves Federalism, balances the interests of rural states with urban states, promotes compromise, and provides a clearcut way of determining the winner of the presidency.

There is a misconception that the more pure and direct democracy is, the more fair it is. This is not true. Our country was designed to blend the best of both republicanism and democracy into a system that minimizes the downsides of each. America is massive and diverse, and without our version of federalism the will of the majority would be unfairly imposed on people who live hundreds of miles away with much different needs. Our current system combines directly elected regional governments with a larger federal government. A popular vote would lead to a nationalization of the federal government — at a detriment to the states. The Electoral College is essentially fueled by the argument that the collective opinion of individual states is more important than the collective opinion of the nation as a whole. Now you may agree or disagree with that idea, but that is ultimately what it comes down to.

The Electoral College prevents one region (or a handful of densely populated metropolitan areas) from controlling who becomes president. Although swing states are a bothersome spandrel, the Electoral College generally ensures that support for a candidate is geographically distributed throughout the country. The current state of it doesn’t quite provide for this, but more on that later.

A common argument is that the Electoral College is unfair because an individual vote from Wyoming carries about 3.6 times more influence than an individual vote in California. This is true, but this is by design. California still has a massive advantage to Wyoming (55 vs. 3 electoral votes), but the Electoral System softens the blow a bit so smaller states aren’t completely disregarded. Many respond back with the fact that even with a popular vote, small states are still needed to win an election. Yes! This is true. This isn’t a black & white problem, its grey. It’s about very slight differences that may seemingly limit democracy, but in fact produce fairer outcomes.

With a popular vote, the campaign strategy essential becomes an optimization function. How many people can I reach per unit time? Thus, the most efficient method would be to spend your time campaigning in large media markets and densely populated areas. Rural areas would be neglected. Thus, a popular vote doesn’t really make anything fairer, it just slightly adjusts who’s being disregarded.

Another benefit of the Electoral College is that it promotes compromise. Our society is extremely politically-polarized, which reinforces the need for compromise to hold us together. I used to be a huge proponent of third-parties and wondered why we continue to fall in line with our two-party system — which the Electoral College helps to guarantee. The truth is that with a popular vote, it is easy to imagine a scenario where an extremist or special interest candidate wins the Presidency with a simple plurality, not a majority. Even with runoffs, candidates would have to bargain with other losers to garner votes, creating a type of politics that would make our current system look tame in comparison. The Electoral College forces parties to compromise, build diverse coalitions, and broadly appeal to the nation.

The biggest problem with a popular vote is perhaps the increased risk of controversy — yes, much more so than the current 2020 mail-in-vote drama. A popular vote would rely on each state to certify a national vote total. Thus, states would be expected to trust other states without any power to verify their accuracy and honesty. Votes would be aggregated across different jurisdictions with different processes, and would likely violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

The Electoral College provides a clearcut path to the presidency: 270 electoral votes. Instead of a recount in a couple of close states, a close election with a popular vote could result in a recount in every state. Ultimately, it allows states to remain in charge of elections and contain disputes within state lines. Imagine if we had a recount in every precinct in America.

Winner-take-all is the real problem

The Electoral College is essential to our political system and puts an emphasis on moderation and compromise — the driving force behind American politics. It forces candidates to campaign on a national level and familiarize themselves with local & regional politics.

With all of this being said, our system is certainly not perfect. The winner-take-all method — which is more a side-effect than intention of the Electoral College — can ignore the will of many voters. The winner-take-all method funnels candidates’ resources to battleground states and hijacks airtime for issues that dominate those states. Instead, A proportional allocation would almost make every state a battleground. This would increase voter turnout and make people feel like their vote counts without succumbing to the inherent disadvantages of a popular vote.

Although it would likely be better and even more fair if no states had a winner-take-all method, it is silly to expect any Republican or Democratic stronghold state to essentially give up votes by switching to a proportional allocation. The only way this could possibly work is if every state switched over at the same time.

Conclusion

The 2016 election really ignited the Electoral College debate, but to say that “Clinton would have beat Trump” if there was no Electoral College is a fallacy because the mere existence of the Electoral College dictates candidates’ campaign strategies. Candidates use their resources in a way that will maximize electoral votes, not popular votes.

A good analogy is a game of chess. If Player A checkmates Player B, they win (even if Player A didn’t capture as many pieces) because that’s how chess games are scored. It would be false to say “well if it was scored by pieces captured then Player B would’ve won.” If the rules change, then both players would’ve played differently. The outcome would likely still be the same because the skills required to win are extremely similar; just different rules for determining the winner.

The truth is, we don’t know what would’ve happened. The best we can do is play by the rules of the game and acknowledge the fact that arguing over the Electoral College is senseless when there are much larger issues at play, like gerrymandering, that have much greater implications on our democracy.

Further Reading

A Pinch of Nuance

Things people think, but never say

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