The Electoral College: Giving Citizens the Illusion of Choice by Richard Erickson

After a very tense election, the results are finally counted. Many people are unhappy with both options and are being forced to pick their poison. Then it is finally reported that Trump won the election while losing the popular vote. Many are outraged by the fact their candidate somehow lost while winning. Unfortunately this isn’t the first time a result like this occurred, and it certainly won’t be the last. For the fourth time in U.S. history the president elect has lost the popular vote, leaving the election with a 9% failure rate. If this were a sport where the loser won 9% of the time because of a fluke in the rules no one would watch or play it, so how is it acceptable for the presidential election?

If you are unfamiliar with how the presidential election actually works, it’s basically a bunch of local elections. Instead of directly voting for the president, citizens vote for how they want their representatives to cast their electoral votes, which are what actually determine the president. In general it is a winner-take-all system, where whoever most votes in a state gets all that state’s electoral votes. This means that a candidate doesn’t need to be voted for by the majority of the population, they just need to receive more votes than their competitors. As a result this means that someone can get one vote and still win a state’s electoral votes. This means someone could hit the required 270 electoral votes to become president, but only have 11 people voting for them. Of course a scenario like that is unreasonable. It would require no more than 1 person voting in each of the 11 most populous states. On top of that they would also all need to vote for the same person.

Unfortunately there is a much more possible result that ends with the president being voted for by ~21% of the total U.S. population. Rather than assuming that only three ten billionths of a percent of the population vote, it assumes 100% of the population votes. It also assumes that people don’t vote third party, but that is actually semi-reasonable since voting third party is basically the same thing as not voting at all because of the winner-take-all system. Speaking of which, the winner-take-all system is essential for winning in this scenario. If you win the votes of exactly half the population plus one you will win the votes in that state, so the strategy to win with the smallest amount of the population voting for you is to focus entirely on the smallest states while ignoring the big states. Using population data from the 2012 U.S. Census, this means that if you win half plus 1 of the votes in Wyoming, Washington D.C, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Idaho, West Virginia, New Mexico, Kansas, Nevada, Utah, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and North Carolina, and all of the vote from Maine and Nebraska, you can reach the required 270 electoral votes to win with only 20.8% of the population voting for you.

This is partially caused by how many votes are given to each state. Each state is given votes equal to the amount of representatives they have in congress. This means that states can have no fewer than three votes, two for the Senate and one for the House. Because the votes aren’t entirely based on population you get situations where the vote from someone in Wyoming is worth more than the vote of someone in California because Wyoming has 93,938 people per electoral vote, and California has 338,672 people per electoral vote. This is where the strategy of ignoring the highly populated states comes from, as one vote in Wyoming is worth about 3.6 votes in California.

Winning with ~21% of the popular vote is madness, but the Electoral College can cause far worse results than that. In actuality, electors are only encouraged to vote the same way as the people they represent. This means that they can vote for whoever they want without breaking any laws, and therefore you don’t need anyone to vote for you to become president, assuming you have supporters on the college. Now this has never happened in the history of the U.S, and hopefully it never will, but the fact that this is even a possibility is unacceptable if we want a fair system for electing the president.

In all of these three scenarios the vast majority of the population is unhappy with the result. Certainly if you voted for the winner you may be happy, your team won, but the presidential election isn’t a game. If you see this as an okay result you don’t seem to want a democracy. Instead you seem to want something closer to a dictatorship, where a potentially small group of people decides the rules for the rest of the population.

As it stands we have a system where ~9% of the time we elect the wrong person, and 100% of the time more than half the population is unhappy. Certainly about half the population will always end up unhappy as a result of our voting system, but the electoral college only compounds the problem. It allows for situations where ~80-100% of the population is unhappy in a 2-party system, and this is unacceptable if we hope to have a fair system where the most supported person always wins the election.

If you look back to the formation of the U.S. government these rules certainly make more sense. When mail carried by horses is the best form of communication, a country wide vote would be horribly slow. On top of that the electors being able to overrule the people makes more sense when only a small fraction of the population can read. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where illiterate farmers don’t elect a very qualified person as president. However these rules need to change with the times. At this point using the electoral college instead of going off the popular vote doesn’t make much sense. If we just went off popular vote we wouldn’t have a situation where the losing candidate wins anyway, or any of these possibilities where a small fraction of the population elects the president.


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