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The three fallacies of the popular vote

In light of Secretary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, prominent voices call for replacing the Electoral College with a direct, nationwide vote for President. Among the distinguished individuals now urging abolition of the Electoral College are former Attorney General Eric Holder and outgoing Senator Barbara Boxer. However, for three reasons, it is wrong to assume that the popular vote total in this or any other presidential election is the same as the result which would have occurred under a direct, nationwide election for President conducted using uniform national rules. Would Secretary Clinton or President-elect Trump have won in 2016 in a direct, nationwide election? We don’t know.

Abolishing the Electoral College would shift the campaigns’ allocation of their respective resources from close, toss-up states to party strongholds. The Trump campaign productively allotted its candidate’s time and its money to such closely-contested states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Without the Electoral College, the Trump campaign would have instead sent its candidate and its funds into Trump strongholds like Tennessee and Indiana to increase his already large vote totals in those states. The Trump campaign would also have devoted resources to upstate New York and inland California, Republican-leaning areas of no consequence under the winner-take-all allocation of their states’ electoral votes. The result would have been a vote pattern different from the one which actually occurred under the Electoral College system in 2016 when campaign resources were channeled to toss-up states.

Embracing this logic, the Trump campaign claims that the President-elect would have prevailed in a direct election since his campaign would have allocated its resources differently under such a system. Perhaps this claim is correct. Perhaps not. We simply do not know how a direct election for President would have come out in 2016 since we did not have such election.

There are two additional reasons that the popular vote under the Electoral College system may not reflect the outcome which would have occurred under a direct vote using uniform national rules: various states today use different voting rules. A direct nationwide election for president would change the incentives for many protest voters who cast their ballots for third-party candidates.

The United States today does not conduct a single presidential election under a nationally uniform set of rules. Rather, there are fifty-one separate elections each administered under particular state-established regulations. Comparing the different state tallies obtained under different rules may not quite be adding together oranges and apples. It is, however, at least adding together oranges and tangerines.

Consider, for example, the different approaches to mail ballots in Oregon and West Virginia. Oregon conducted its entire election by mail ballots and awarded its electoral votes to Secretary Clinton. West Virginia, in contrast, issued a mail ballot to a voter only under more traditional, restrictive circumstances reflecting the voter’s inability to get to the polls.

It is wrong to assume that the popular vote total in this or any other presidential election is the same as the result which would have occurred under a direct, nationwide election for President conducted using uniform national rules.

It is problematic to look at the votes cast under these different rules in Oregon and in West Virginia, and declare that these are the outcomes which would have occurred under a nationally-uniform direct election without the Electoral College. Suppose that West Virginia had this year taken Oregon’s liberal approach to mail ballots. Would this have increased Secretary Clinton’s West Virginia votes by stimulating Clinton supporters who were too discouraged to bother voting in an overwhelming pro-Trump state? Or would more liberal mail voting regulations have brought out relatively more of the pro-Trump electorate in West Virginia?

We don’t know. And since we’ll never know, it is fallacious to compare the actual vote totals of these two (and other) states which used different voting rules.

Moreover, the incentives under the Electoral College are different for many voters who cast protest ballots for third party candidates than the incentives such voters would confront under a direct national election of the President. Under the current system, a Republican unenthusiastic about Mr. Trump could in this fashion comfortably vote for Governor Johnson and the balance of the Republican ticket, confident that his presidential vote was symbolic since his state’s electoral votes were destined to go to Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton. That same voter would have confronted a different calculation under a direct national vote since his vote might then have affected the outcome.

It is instructive in this context to compare the popular vote total received by President-elect Trump with the aggregate vote simultaneously received nationwide by Republican candidates for the US House of Representatives. While Mr. Trump received roughly two million fewer popular votes than did Secretary Clinton, Republican candidates for the House received in the aggregate approximately three million more votes nationwide than did their Democratic opponents. A substantial share of the additional votes cast for Republican House candidates likely came from individuals who simultaneously voted for Governor Johnson for president and their local Republican candidate for Congress.

Would this have altered the final result in 2016? We don’t know which, again, is why we cannot assume that the popular vote which actually occurred in 2016 is the same as the result which would have resulted under a direct election for President conducted under uniform national rules.

There are thoughtful critics and supporters of the Electoral College. Americans should debate about our Constitution and the institutions it establishes. In that debate, Americans should not succumb to the fallacious assumption that the popular vote under the Electoral College is the same vote which would necessarily occur in a direct national election for President.

Featured image credit: 2016 U.S. presidential election party, Riga, Latvia by Kārlis Dambrāns. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Dinu Munteanu

    Clinton is my president. Popular vote = Democracy Electoral coledge is a reliq of slavery. Should Lincoln not had been assasinated he should probably abolished the electoral coledge too. All the calculations in the article are made invalid by the popular vote with 2 balots as in France. It was imposible for Hamilton not to choose electoral coledge when slavery was legal. It is posible to choose popular vote today when slavery is no longer legal but a mormon in Utah that votes acording to his priest wishes is a modern slave too.

  2. wgreen

    It’s dubious to claim that Trump would have done better in the popular vote if he had allocated resources to target the popular vote more aggressively. Everyone that makes this claim seems to forget that Clinton would have also aggressively allocated resources to increase her share of the popular vote, and the net result would almost certainly have been very close to the margin we see today – a 2% Clinton victory.

  3. James

    The electoral college has flaws and a simple popular vote has flaws as well. Both parties agreed to an election under these rules. The outrage over electoral college is the understandable anger that there are certain flaws in the system. The problem is that it is all retrospective and in hindsight. Donald Trump won fairly within the rules as they stand and have always existed.

  4. Donna Stolar

    If the vote were proportional rather than winner take all, wouldn’t that have resulted in a different outcome and been fairer? And doesn’t gerrymandering affect the vote for congress and senate even in the presidential voting year?

  5. Donna A.

    If states were to have proportioned votes, similar to what the state of Maine does, then Trump would have won an additional twelve electoral votes. This is taking into consideration those counties that went from blue to red and red to blue, as well as rural areas in California, New York, Illinois, etc. The constitution ensures that large populated states (California and New York) do not have more power than those who live in Wyoming and other small populated states. If that happens, would those living in less populated states become slaves of those living in highly populated states? The states with a large population would consistantly be deciding the presidential race. The electoral college was about the highly populated states not controlling the nation and the US becoming a one party system. Please read the book “White Trash, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg. You will find it very informative!

  6. Ace Aardvark

    It is time for 1 person = 1 vote. Every state has its own rules about when to vote, who can vote and how to count the votes. I believe that the primary purpose of the electoral college is to allow those in power to maintain control over the people; to give the illusion of democracy. The electoral college system is a “check” on democracy created by and for the plutocracy.

    Read Federalist paper #68.

  7. RLS

    Good to hear a voice of reason. There are other potential factors that could result in very different outcomes in a Presidential race where the goal is simply winning a national popular vote. People can try to spin it any way that they wish, but the bottom line is that under the current system, the popular vote is simply a byproduct of the electoral process. I should add that I didn’t support Trump. Just agreeing with the author’s assessment.

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