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How Could the Electoral College System Be Replaced?

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Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate. (Getty)

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.

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37 comments

  1. The other state besides Maine that assign electors by congressional district (plus two statewide) is Nebraska, not Kentucky.

    • Yes, but it’s worse in Nebraska, or could be. Because it’s an even number of districts, Maine can only go 4-0 or 3-1. Nebraska has three, and could go 5-0, 4-1, or 3-2. The last is quite possible, if Omaha’s district throws the whole state off from the other two.

      So Nebraska has a net effect of a single elector. Political suicide. That’s why New York and Maryland belatedly adopted the unit rule (“winner-take-all”) after essentially negating their own power in the 1820s with electoral splits. They were forced to!

      Incidentally, there are other ways than districts to split an electoral slate. West Virginia voters once chose each elector individually, as did several other states. In 1916, it was so close there that the top Wilson elector outpolled the bottom Hughes one. Hughes thus got only seven of the state’s eight electors.

  2. Please. The electoral college worked. The current margin would have been less than .2% and triggered a national crisis. Recounts in all states. Lawsuits seeking to disallow votes in all states. Investigations in all states. Federal judges deciding the election in each county. The margin was likely lower than the number of illegal aliens voting illegally in states where it’s made easy

    Further, candidates did not campaign in all states. If trump had run ads and campaigned in california, he would have flipped more than 250,000 votes. Same in New York.

    If the gap was 2% or more, 3 million people, maybe a change is needed. But 250,000? In a nation 1000x that size, it’s a rounding error based on needing to target campaigning in states that are in play.

    Nixon campaigned in all 50 states in 1960, Kennedy targeted key states. Kennedy won. That’s when the current strategy was born.

    Then there’s the matter of a corrupt large state holding the rest of the country hostage, suppressing/hiding votes of the opposing victor to turn the election.

    The system is working as designed. It is well designed to give each state a certain amount of say and prevent widespread fraud. Changing it would be catastrophic.

    If you don’t like the result, pick a candidate that doesn’t spend the whole election spreading fear of their opponent and instead inspires the voters.

    • Pot meet Kettle – as if Trump had a positive “unity” campaign. LOL – let’s also remember that Republicans during the Gore / Bush race said “if Gore wins EV and not PV then we’ll dump EV” – and you were ALL behind it … so please your racist sexist Russian collaborator won – I hope you are happy with yourselves – he’s a traitor in my book

      • “Republicans during the Gore / Bush race said “if Gore wins EV and not PV then we’ll dump EV” – and you were ALL behind it …”

        No we weren’t. Karen Hughes’s statement was stupid and wrong. Al Gore’s defense of the EC just before the election was his biggest contribution to the country.

        The “popular vote” is a bogus number, because voting laws differ greatly by state, rendering them unequal by nature. (Woodrow Wilson got 500,000 more “popular” votes than Charles Evan Hughes in 1916, but over 1,000,000 women voted in Illinois, and none in much larger New York and Pennsylvania.)

        This is also tellingly different from 2000, where Bush prevailed by a single elector. Trump will be at least 42, perhaps 82, ahead when it’s over. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Candidates should be punished for wadding up all their votes in a few big states.

        • No, the popular vote is not a “bogus” number. You are just saying because that would mean that the racist Fuhrer that you support would have been defeated. Hell, I could make a better argument about the EC vote if anything. Your candidate would be shouting about the election was rigged if it was the other way around. I almost spit up my drink when you said candidate should be punished for getting votes in a few big states. GTFOH. So now we should not count because we rather live farther from clueless, low information racists ? Get of the Fox News and Trump Train tit. Obviously, you lack book sense and common sense. But that is a typical Trump supporter. Take your civic class again and a math class again. This time don’t fall asleep. Obviously, the American Educational System failed you miserably.

    • Michael K – your spot on and nailed it. Crisis of conscience in the electoral collage most often follows the loosing candidate, i.e. “wow if the system were better (meaning different from the current system employed) I’d have won”. Yet that type of thinking as a whole is disingenuous at best and something the left continues to refuse to acknowledge, that the candidate loses because of the candidate and not the system employed to determine the victor & election outcome.

  3. I could be wrong but in theory Hillary could still win the electoral vote if electors change their minds. I do believe as my wife (Trump supporter ) I Clinton supporter does give him a chance to screw up the country. I hope Trump does not try to launch nukes because some country pissed him off. The worst he can do beyond that is increase the national debt to unsustainable proportions. If he starts a trade war with China or Japan we will be boned ten different ways from Sunday. China and Japan together probably hold a third or more or our debt. What do you think will happen if China or Japan or both of them decide to stop buying US Treasury bonds? Interest rates will sky rocket and our Treasury bonds become junk bonds. There would have to be massive cuts to all programs including Defence,Social Security,DOT,Medicine care.

    • Unfortnately, Scooter too many Americans were NOT smart enough to figure all that out,,,,hence Trump won and we lost. That is the reason the polls said the college educated favored Clinton. What a catastrophe…….GOD help us all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • And it’s that kind of comment right there that got Trump elected in the first place, this i went to college and I’m smarter and holier than thou attitude, is the reason why you lost.
        You can’t call people stupid because they didn’t like your candidate, Clinton was a terrible pick for a candidate, becuase not only did she cheat, dismissed Bernie supporters, and called Trumps supporters as stupid and deplorable, now you reep what you so, and the system stays, period.

    • “I hope Trump does not try to launch nukes because some country pissed him off.”

      The only world leader ever to do that was a Democrat. He should have died in prison for it.

      Nukes are just another weapon. Women and children aren’t just another target.

  4. I have no sympathy for the less competitive states, one of which I lived in for seven presidential elections. (My guy always lost.)

    Thanks to seniority, they own the US Senate. The swing states lose power in the Senate because they keep switching senators. So it balances out.

    Also, if you create a national electorate (which has never existed in the US), you have to use the same rules everywhere. You’d have told Massachusetts blacks they couldn’t vote in 1860, Utah’s women in 1896, Georgia’s 18-year-olds in 1948. My state has same-day registration, other states don’t. My last state did, too, but no ID law, which my new state has. Which states force the other states to change?

    • For a national election you should have the same set of rules. For any other, choose you own as long as they are equitable (unlike the old Southern Democrats who used race bars)

      • Well, go to Canada, Australia, or Switzerland, where a national electorate co-exists with separate ones for the individual federal units. Our federal units’ electorates are all we have, or need.

        JFK (no hero of mine) explained it elegantly by likening it to the solar system. Why throw it out of whack?

  5. Yes change it to popular vote that one state does not have more power than other states few votes should not have more power than the majority votes

    • Anne Rettig – The same thing could be said about the Constitution by your argument…. but not on my watch lady. Don’t like the current system that’s stood for over 200 years just because you think it’s antiquated comrade? Then by all means move to anyone of half a dozen socialists nations if that’s your problem. But you won’t and why? Because you have it too good in America and won’t acknowledge the rewards of the “antiquated” system your bashing and want to change for changes sake. Eight years of Barack Obama belittling & chastising our country and the American people has taught us that Joseph Goebbels was right about one thing. Tell a lie loud enough and often enough and the weak of mind will actually buy into it. Here’s the rub though, eight years of Barack Obama as President hasn’t made anyone better off. Proof that if your not part of the solution it’s a good bet your part of the problem.

  6. Ever hear of National Popular Vote? Should have done more research. We are already half way to direct popular election.. Google it

  7. I really feel Trump will be a traitor within the first three months making deals with Russia for monetary gain. He has lied in everything he said even about Hilary. I believe he and assange have had a deal in place for over a year because he said he had no dirt on Trump. Hilary could have brought up much much more truths on him but chose not to fight as dirty as him. Presidents in my book should not be tweeters and Hilary was right about having a public face and a private face as sometimes the people demand something the President does not BUT when we the people have spoken the President must sometimes just stand behind the people. I believe the electoral college is a good check on lazy voters and fraud at the polls as Trump encouraged his follower to do, and this is the one time I would ask for a new poll without hearing from the as–ole in the FBI whom also is probably on Trump’s payroll. just saying!!!

    • “Presidents in my book should not be tweeters” so by you opinion sitting Presidents should automatically have their first amendments rights to freedom of speech instantly revoked? or you mean just Donald Trump. Wow snowflake your a special kind of stupid huh. Apparently the only people with a right to free speech are only the people who agree with your point of view. Please leave mommy & daddy’s computer alone…. the grownups are having a discussion now…. just sayin!!! … LMAO

  8. It’s a consttitional ammendment. There is 0 percent chance it is changing. It is there for a reason and it is a good reason. We should be concentrating on reforming the parties, not the system. And, 3rd parties should be more included in the National agenda. As long as there are only two, the polarization will get worse.

  9. Nothing in the Constitution prevents a state from permitting non-citizens, or even non-residents, to vote in its elections. Considering that their favored candidate’s opponent was detested by the Mexicsn élite, California could have opened up her vote to any Mexican citizen online. That would give 10, 20, 30 million more “popular” votes to their candidate. But no more electors.

    Your “National Popular Vote” would be forced to recognize the Mexican votes. So much for its integrity.

  10. Jane, take a Lexapro.

    I don’t watch TV, I read books. Like Judith Best’s 1976 “Case Against Direct Election”. She wipes the floor with the other side’s best like Neal Pearce and James Michener, whose books on the subject I read (and own) as well.

    When you finish Prof Best’s book (it’s short!), please come back and explain where she’s wrong.

  11. The popular vote should be the only vote that counts in determining the nation´s president. How nefarious is this electoral college vote system!

  12. The Electoral College is further evidence of the genius of the Founders, who put it in place so the elections and leadership of the United States could not be dominated by a few states, whose dominance would not give voice to the entire company.

    Lincoln (1860) won the Electoral College and not the popular vote.

    The lying, criminal left has also used it when it suits them.

    People need to recognize that the IS the Left. They do not recognize we have the right to elect someone they do not want. IF they had guns, they would use them to take over the country. Again, the reason the Founders, in their brilliance, included the Second Amendment is that they saw that a powerful political party would attempt to overthrow the Republic. This is why they want the guns.

    And, in case someone asks you, in spite of the Liberal lies, Bush won the popular vote in Florida. The New York Times, always a democratic paper, was so sure Gore had one, that they arranged for a recall of the popular vote in Florida. Guess what? Bush won the popular vote, and Scalia said so when they discussed their decision.

    They will stop at nothing to destroy Trump. The Left never stops. We must not allow the Mitch McConnells to dilute Trumps agenda,

    • And, by the way, we are seeing from these spoiled, dangerous brats, what happens in a culture where you get medals for losing.

      I work at a large university. These are the people who want “safe space:” where no one can say anything that offends them.

  13. The other state to divvy up EC votes by district is Nebraska NOT the COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky.

    But who am I to expect some liberal moron to –

    1. Get the facts right

    2. Know KY is not a “STATE”…

    • You’re right except for one data point. The Constitution, which we’re defending from these emotional fools, makes no distinction between a “state” and a “commonwealth”. Kentucky, her mother Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts are all “States” in the document, same as the others. Rhode Island isn’t actually a plantation because that word is in the official name of the state.

      States are also republics (Art IV, Section 4), and could print that on their drivers licenses (e.g., “The Republic of Ohio”), but choose not to.

  14. The “National Popular Vote” initiative which some propound appears to get around the need for a constitutional amendment by letting the states recognize the national total rather than their own. But wait just a second there…

    Baker v Carr and Reynolds v Sims ruled that states must treat and weigh all voters equally. The national total can’t do that, because the votes are cast under very different laws. My guess is that an honest Supreme Court will have to negate it. Unless the states in the system agree to adopt a single standard, which would mean giving up much of what they like about their own states’ rules. Not likely!

  15. The electoral college was put in place by our founders, to stop direct democracy from happening, because of the chance of tyranny.
    The electoral college will stay, because of the constitutional crissis it would cause, so you guys can either respect it” or leave if you don’t like it, either way, I’d fight tooth and nails if they tried to make the president based on the popular vote.

  16. “How Could the Electoral College System Be Replaced?”

    Simple, just select the 5 or 6 states that will be electing the President from now on.

  17. America…the only country in the “Big Wide World” where the majority vote virtually means “Zero”! A (flawed) Constitution meant to benefit the rich & suppress the voice of the poor ordinary man! The sentiment of the rich: “The majority of people don’t have a clue what’s good for the country…piss on them!”

    • Ever heard of the parliamentary system? Prime ministers’ parties often get fewer votes than the opposition; what matters is the number of seats won, i.e., where the voters live. America isn’t as different as you think.

  18. Susanna you can tell no one replied to you because you obviously are bipolar or have obsessive compulsive disorder. Regardless anyone’s political beliefs I urge you to get an appointment with a qualified psychiatrist.“““““““““`