Electoral College Blues

Democrats agitating against the Electoral College should keep a few things in mind.

New York State Capitol Albany
Electors gather in the New York State Capitol in Albany, December 19 (New York City Mayor’s Office/Edwin J. Torres)

In the recent presidential election, Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees and just 35 percent of college-age voters. But, of course, Trump won the presidency in spite of these numbers, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes in the Electoral College.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the Electoral College (or at least wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish). They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W. Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the Electoral College with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about.

That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1. Barack Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008

He received roughly .7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2-percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s .5-percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as a general election and involves many fewer voters.

Moreover, the fact of Obama’s popular vote loss is not a point against Obama (and it is certainly not a point in Trump’s favor).

Still, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after having lost a key popular vote. Indeed, they do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did so well in that election in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida; those same states which have propelled Trump to Electoral College success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election.

2. The Senate is even worse

It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the Electoral College is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the Electoral College, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents. But still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W. Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately .5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants (not counting Washington DC), or the fourteen states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the twenty states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3. It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the Electoral College

While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the Electoral College would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future Electoral Colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black and white liberal populations continue to grow quickly within swing states like Colorado, Florida, Virginia and possibly even Georgia.

Trump’s Electoral College victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counterintuitively, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, than it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting block even if they no longer make up more than half the total electorate.

(In this recent election, by the way, white voters still accounted for an estimated 69 percent of total eligigble voters.)

Of course, it is probable that, for elections in the foreseeable future, Republicans will continue to fare better in the Electoral College than in the popular vote, given that most Democratic voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states.

Still, any Democrat who hopes to somehow get rid of the Electoral College in order to benefit their own party should maybe be a bit careful in making this Christmas wish.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, December 19, 2016.