Hillary Clinton will not become the next president of the United States despite the fact that she received more votes than Donald Trump.
At least, that’s how the race is shaping up right now. Ballots are still being counted, but at this time, Hillary Clinton received 59,600,000 votes, whereas Donald Trump received 59,400,000 of them. In other words, over 200,000 more Americans wanted Clinton to be president.
It sounds a bit nonsensical that the victor in a political contest could be the person who has less support than their opponent, but that’s just the way the Electoral College system works. In the United States, the race to the presidency is not about winning more raw votes. Instead, it’s about winning more states. By earning a plurality of votes in any given state, the presidential candidate captures all of those state’s electors, with each state having a certain number depending on its population. It’s a winner-take-all system, meaning whoever, for example, wins more raw votes in Pennsylvania gets all 20 of Pennsylvania’s electors. The person who reaches 270 wins, and although fewer people voted for Donald Trump, his Electoral College count is expected to exceed 300.
The candidate who wins in the Electoral College almost always wins the popular vote as well, but it doesn’t always work out that way because millions of Americans’ ballots don’t really affect the outcome of the presidential race. With the 2016 election, for example, Hillary Clinton won New York by over 1.5 million votes, which is to be expected from an incredibly blue state. This means she gets New York’s 29 electors. But let’s say she won the state by literally two votes. In the latter scenario, she still gets New York’s 29 electors, and so the result is exactly the same. In a world without the Electoral College, that loss of 1,499,998 votes would be catastrophic. In reality, as long as a state is overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican, the margin of victory makes no difference, leaving millions of voters feeling they don’t have a voice.
In the Electoral College system, then, the only votes for president that tend to matter all that much are those that are cast in battleground states, ones that flip back and forth between being red and blue. This year, voters in Wisconsin turning out for Donald Trump helped hand him the presidency, putting him over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin and therefore making it very difficult for her to reach 270 Electoral College votes. But Republicans in California or Democrats in Texas essentially did not have a role in deciding who the next president will be.
The result this year has lead to a lot of anger among Hillary Clinton supporters, who see it as extremely unfair that their candidate lost entirely because of a complicated, centuries-old system. That confusion and frustration is a bipartisan feeling. Four years ago, when the election was first called for Barack Obama, it looked like Mitt Romney might go on to win the popular vote. This did not end up being the case, as by the end of the night, Obama had the lead both in electors and in raw votes. But for a few hours, Republicans were outraged about this in the same way that Democrats are outraged this year. Joining in on the outrage was Donald Trump himself, who tweeted back then that the Electoral College system is a “disaster.” Four years later, it would elect him president.
The last time that a candidate won the popular vote but lost the presidency was in 2000, when George W. Bush famously won the election after earning Florida’s 29 electors even though he received fewer votes than Al Gore. That, however, was a much closer Electoral College race than 2016, as Gore would have become president if Florida went his way whereas no one state would have pushed Clinton over the top this year. Prior to 2000, this scenario had not happened in over 100 years. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the election despite getting fewer votes than Grover Cleveland. This also occurred in 1876 and 1824.
We’re now beginning to hear calls to replace the Electoral College system entirely. How would this be done? Is it possible?
A reform of the Electoral College system would require a Constitutional amendment, and to get a Constitutional amendment passed, it’s necessary to have support from two-thirds of the House and the Senate, or two-thirds of state legislators. That’s an incredibly difficult task, and the Republican party currently holds a majority in both the House and the Senate, making it quite unlikely to happen. After all, the party in power has little incentive to change the system that got them there in the first place.
The closest that proponents of an Electoral College reform ever came to change was in 1969, when the Bayh–Celler amendment was introduced. This came after the tight 1968 election in which the winner, Richard Nixon, received only about 500,000 more popular votes than his opponent. The amendment was proposed by two Democratic representatives, and it would have introduced a system that relied exclusively on the popular vote. The candidates who received the most votes would win the election, assuming they got at least 40 percent of it. Electors would not be involved at all. The proposal actually passed in the House of Representatives and it was supported by President Nixon, but the Democrats failed to earn enough support in the Senate; the amendment died and was never brought back up again. If the Bayh–Celler amendment had passed, Al Gore would have become president in 2001, and Hillary Clinton would have become president in 2017.
But there is actually already an alternative to the Electoral College system in place. In what’s known as the “congressional district method,” electors are still awarded, and a candidate still must reach 270 to win the presidency. But these electors are not won on a winner-take-all basis. Instead, they’re awarded by Congressional district, not by the state as a whole. The idea is that in a solidly red or solidly blue state, there are huge pockets of voters in the minority party who make up entire districts but who never have a say in the election result. This system would give them a voice, as districts would become candidates’ target rather than states. A Republican would normally ignore a state like Maine because it’s firmly Democratic and because they would have no chance of winning it. But in the congressional district method, they can visit a district that leans Republican and appeal to those voters, therefore not ignoring the voices of millions just because those voices are in the state’s minority.
In fact, that isn’t a hypothetical scenario; it’s precisely what happened this year. Maine uses the district method, and its 2nd Congressional District leans Republican. Donald Trump held several rallies in that part of the state throughout his campaign, and it paid off for him, as he won the district and picked up an additional elector. The other state to divvy up electors this way is Kentucky, and in 2008, Barack Obama picked up an elector there. In both of those elections, the addition of one elector hardly mattered considering the electoral contest was not remotely close, but this could have theoretically decided the election if the race was a bit tighter.
Those in favor of keeping the Electoral College system in place argue that it incentives candidates to appeal to voters all over the country, not just relying on states with large populations. But opponents argue that adopting a system driven by the popular vote would increase turnout, preventing people from staying home because they feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Seeing the candidate with more votes lose the election does little to dissuade them of that notion.