WASHINGTON, November 10, 2016 — Donald Trump won a convincing electoral-vote victory over Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. By 9:30 p.m., it was clear that Clinton was in trouble; by 11:00, it was clear that she would lose.
As convincing as Trump’s victory was, it doesn’t reflect the popular vote. For the fifth time in presidential elections history and the second time in 16 years, the electoral winner lost the popular vote.
Clinton’s margin of victory among voters was small. According to current counts, Trump received 59,611,678 votes to Clinton’s 59,814,018, about two-tenths of a percent. But that fraction of a percent has led some furious and disappointed Clinton supporters to charge that Republicans have yet again “stolen” the election through the Electoral College.
The charge is emotional nonsense; the Electoral College has worked as it was designed to over 220 years ago, and it hasn’t been manipulated in any way by Republicans or anyone else. However, it has denied the popular vote winner the victory, and some people say that it’s time for the College to go the way of other archaic institutions.
Among the arguments against the Electoral College:
- It’s undemocratic. In theory, it would be possible to win the electoral vote with as little as 30 percent of the popular vote, eking out tiny victories in the largest states while taking no votes in the rest.
- It suppresses voter turnout; there’s little reason for Republicans to vote for Republican in California, or for Democrats to vote Democratic in much of the South. But with Democratic victory certain in California, there’s not even much reason for Democrats to vote there.
- It strangles third parties in the cradle; in winner-take-all states (all but Nebraska and Maine), voters might not want to risk voting for candidates who will get no electoral votes.
But there are some good reasons to keep it:
- It requires presidential candidates to seek support nationwide; a candidate who’s immensely popular in the south, for instance, can’t win with only southern support. Support has to be spread across the country, and that ensures that no region is disenfranchised.
- It can give some clout back to voters in large states that they lose due to the way senators are apportioned. Wyoming voters have far more clout in the Senate than do individual California voters; the Electoral College system ensures that presidential politics favors larger states. In theory. In practice, swing states Ohio and Florida are more important than reliably blue California on the campaign trail.
- It makes it easier to avoid the problems of close elections. As bad as the recount mess was in Florida in 2000, imagine it spread across the entire country. The margin between Trump and Clinton is statistically tiny; if the Electoral College didn’t amplify the differences in each state, we could end up with a national recount.
- In 1968 and 1992, we’d have needed runoff elections due to the impact of third-party candidates, who kept both major-party candidates from receiving a majority of the popular vote. The electoral college, with the requirement that the House vote when there’s no majority, avoids that problem
There are other arguments for and against the College. The founding fathers feared too direct a democracy, which is why they created it in the first place. So they put it in the Constitution, which gives us the biggest reason that we won’t eliminate it: It might be too hard.
It requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress to pass an amendment, which must then be passed by three-fourths of the states. In our deeply divided nation, any scheme to revamp, replace or eliminate the Electoral College would never get that level of support. It would threaten one party’s electoral clout.
That doesn’t mean we can do nothing to reform it. Individual states can change the way they apportion electors. Trump won one electoral vote in Maine, Clinton three. Maine’s electoral votes are given by congressional district; win the district, get the vote. Nebraska’s system is the same.
But the system is entrenched. The odds are good that in a hundred years, another popular vote loser, or two or three, will have won the presidential election. People will complain, and the Electoral College will remain.