A couple of weeks ago, suspiciously-simultaneous lawsuits were filed in South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts, and California, alleging that the states’ process of giving all of their electoral votes to the person that wins the popular vote in the state is wrong.
To quote Reuters, “[t]he lawsuits contend that system denies citizens their constitutional right to an equal vote by discarding votes for candidates who lose in a state and magnifying the votes of those who win there.”
A lawyer on the team presenting the lawsuits said that “[t]his is a clear violation of the principle of one person, one vote.”
Which is stupid.
I’m not sure how else to say it.
Even if you accept the premises of their argument, you have the exact same problem with a pure popular vote count: the votes of those who voted for the losing candidate don’t influence the final outcome of the election. This is not to say that they couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the election. If more people had voted that way they would have won.
It just means that they didn’t influence the outcome, which doesn’t seem like an issue to me. It feels bad to lose, but that’s a risk we take when we vote.
So, the problem that is at play extends across many kinds of voting systems, which suggests that the lawsuits are being brought disingenuously. The people behind them have a problem with the outcome of the last election, and not necessarily the process that produced it.
As the above Reuters article pointed out, one of the lawyers working on the case is David Boies, who represented Al Gore before the Supreme Court when they were deciding the 2000 election. He also worked for Harvey Weinstein, and according to a New Yorker article, “attempt[ed] to uncover information that would stop the publication of a Times story about Weinstein’s abuses, while his firm was also representing the Times, including in a libel case.” Questions about his character abound.
So, while there are reasons to doubt the motives behind the lawsuits, I’m not saying that the Electoral College isn’t a flawed system. Far from it.
But that’s a topic for a different day. From here, I want to take a look at the popular vote and present a number of scenarios in which an election based solely on that system might be incredibly misleading.
Let’s start with the last big one we had, Trump vs Hillary in 2016. Here’s the electoral map:
And here’s the breakdown by county, which appears to be even more in Trump’s favor than the state-level map:
And then there’s the popular vote, found here:
Hillary won the popular vote nationwide by 2,864,903 votes.
To put this in perspective, she won California with 7,362,490 votes to Trump’s 3,916,209, a victory margin of 3,446,281.
Which means that in the other 49 states she ran a net-negative vote-total.
At least in the case of the 2016 presidential election, if the president was to be chosen by popular vote, then we’re essentially just letting California choose the president.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.
For the next couple of scenarios, I’m going to use numbers based on the Voting-Eligible Population for each state, which can be found here. I’m also going to assume that everyone who is eligible also votes, even though in reality that number varies by state and that on average only 60% of eligible voters vote.
In this system 230,585,915 votes will be cast, meaning that 115,292,958 votes will be required for a win.
Here’s the first map:
In it, the seven most populous states voted together, as well as Kentucky. Based on the electoral college, the other candidate would have won by a healthy margin. If we used the popular vote, the candidate that won just eight states has 155,410,595 votes, enough to win the election.
If we were to go the other direction, starting with the states with the least population and working our way up the list, it would require 41 states and the District of Columbia to outweigh the 8 states from before. That map would look like this:
In this scenario, the winning side has 122,451,210 votes, and a slight lead in the electoral college. For the person on the other side to win the popular vote, they would only need to flip one state. In order to win in the electoral college, they would need to flip at least two states, New Jersey and Georgia. If they don’t get both of those, the number of states required really starts to grow.
So, what am I trying to say here?
Basically, that every system is going to seem flawed under the right light.
After I had fun playing with the vote simulator above, I found a section of the same website titled “Gaming the Electoral College.”
There were a couple of observations from that site that I wanted to share.
First, had electoral votes been assigned solely based on the popular vote within each state, then neither candidate in 2016 would have had enough votes in the electoral college to win.
Second, and this was something I wanted to say but had no proof for until I found this page, is that “things can change.” What I mean by that is that what seems like something that would be more fair, or better for your party of choice, might not be good for it in the long run. Look at this excerpt:
“[I]n 2013, Pennsylvania Republican State Senator Dominic Pileggi introduced a bill that would change the state’s allocation to roughly reflect the popular vote. This proposal was clearly meant to benefit his party, which had just lost its 6th consecutive presidential election. Mitt Romney would have won 8 of the state’s 20 electoral votes under Pileggi’s plan. Fast forward to 2016, the first election the new rules would have been in place. Donald Trump broke the Democratic winning streak. This legislation would have cost him 9 electoral votes.”
I’m not sure that it gets much clearer than that. Monkeying with the system for short-term gain could easily have long-term consequences.