The morning after election night 2012—Barack Obama had just secured himself a second term in the White House—then-future President-elect Donald J. Trump, in one of his many fatuous tweet-from-the-hip outbursts, apparently believing (in error) that Mitt Romney had bagged the popular vote, declared the electoral college “a disaster for a democracy.”
Following the 2016 election, which indeed saw the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania pass into the hands of the runner-up in the never-fought contest for the nationwide popular vote, the president-elect appears to have softened his position, now calling the electoral college a “genius system.” Come election night 2020, in the as-(un)likely-as-Trump-being-elected-president-in-the-first-place event that President Trump is denied a second term in spite of reaping the popular vote then, odds are he’ll revert to his 2012 assessment of the EC.
The human propensity for failing to anticipate that one day the shoe might end up on the other foot never ceases to amaze, for as sure as night follows day, our trusty electoral college is currently taking a mollywopping from those who, just a few short weeks ago, following then-candidate Trump’s refusal to pledge his unconditional submission to the outcome of the election if he were to lose, were denouncing as unpatriotic and dangerous any calling into question the legitimacy of American democracy as practiced.
If disgruntled Clinton voters (perhaps more accurately referred to as anti-Trump voters) have a fundamental quibble with the electoral college, their misgivings could be taken more seriously had they voiced them before the election rather than waxing apoplectic over the EC only after it vaulted the wrong candidate to victory; for it is highly doubtful that the very same folks that are now busy signing and circulating a spate of online petitions to change or outright abolish the electoral college on account of it being “antiquated” and “undemocratic” would be doing so if they perceived the EC, as is, as having saved us from rather than stuck us with a Trump presidency.
Anyone that wants to tinker with, or all-out eliminate, the EC on grounds that it gave us Trump—and W before that—may want to step back and consider for a moment that in future elections, any “new and improved” system may produce equally unsettling election results that the current one would have precluded.
But it’s even more complicated than that.
Because not only is it devilishly difficult to prophesy whether, all other things being equal, a modified or abolished electoral college would facilitate or frustrate victories by one’s favorite candidates in future elections, but on top of that, all other things would not be equal, as political campaigns will always be strategically tailored to whatever system is in place at the time.
Thus, it is a fallacy to claim that if the U.S. president were elected by popular vote, Hillary Clinton would be inaugurated on January 20th, for if the president were elected by popular vote, both candidates and their camps would have campaigned very differently from the outset. For one, they’d have chosen to spend more time and resources to court voters in populous coastal states rather than whistlestop through flyover country hunting for the farm vote in Iowa, and they would have revised their respective planks accordingly.
To engage in counterfactual speculation and retrodict that if Donald Trump had sat his Make America Great Again cap on winning the popular vote as opposed to the majority of electoral votes he would have failed is like saying that if football games were scored on grace and style in addition to touchdowns and field goals, the Mountaintop Catamounts never would have won the Superbowl—well, if grace and style points were part of the scoring system in football, both the Mountaintop Catamounts as well as their opponent, the Greencastle Railsplitters, would have modified their game. There’s no telling how well or badly each team would have risen to a hypothetical task never set to either, just as there is no telling whether Donald Trump would or wouldn’t have managed to rustle up, rally to his cause, and coax to the polls just enough additional irredeemably deplorables from that cyclopean basket so as to score the popular vote if that had been the road to victory. (My apologies for not being much of a ballgames aficionado, wherefore it is so much easier and faster for me to make up fictional team names than look up existing ones.)
Furthermore, there’s no telling how many non-swing-state voters stayed home on election day—or decided against mailing in their absentee ballots over exorbitant postage—because they correctly expected the outcome of the presidential race in their respective states to be a foregone conclusion (and either didn’t know or didn’t care about any of the down-ballot boxes to be ticked), but who would have hauled their a$#es to the polls if the president were elected by a nationwide popular vote, in which case their individual votes may have had an actual shot at affecting the result.
In short, it is invalid to superimpose real-world election results onto hypothetical or futuristic election scenarios, as any such scenario would have altered the behavior of voters and candidates alike. Anyone insisting that Trump never would have won the popular vote, even if that had been his goal, sounds just as astute and infallible as all those pundits that deemed it impossible for Trump to get anywhere near 270 electoral votes, which was his goal, and he overshot it by 34.
Besides quixotic calls for the abolition of the electoral college in the wake of Donald Trump’s traumatizing electoral landslide, which would necessitate a constitutional amendment and hence ranks roughly on par with fantasies about repealing the Second Amendment, a number of possible modifications to the institution are being floated, such as replacing the winner-takes-all system currently employed by 48 out of 50 states with a winner-of-the-national-popular-vote-takes-all system in all 50 states. In fact, back in 2007, Maryland proposed a plan to award all of its ten electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. Implementation of the plan foundered over its failure to gain traction with other states. So this particular attempt at outsmarting rather than amending the Constitution went nowhere, as did hundreds of bills heretofore introduced in Congress to superannuate the EC in one fashion or another.
The electoral college seems here to stay, which is probably best, since a direct popular vote for president would de facto disenfranchise most of the country by concentrating electoral power in but a handful of large cities and other densely populated areas, primarily ranged along the two coastlines.
Still, many voters feel disenfranchised precisely on account of the EC, primarily voters in non-battleground states—for what’s the point of voting in places like deep-blue California or deep-red Wyoming, where all electoral votes are spoken for anyway?
Personally, I would propose replacing the winner-takes-all system with one similar to the congressional district method employed by Maine and Nebraska, whereby a state’s electoral votes would be awarded on a percentage basis proportional to the outcome of the popular vote in that state. So if 70% of Californians voted for Lassie and 30% for Lord Voldemort, instead of Lassie walking away with 100% of California’s 55 electoral votes, Lassie would get 70% and Lord Voldemort would get 30% of the 55. (Some rounding may have to be applied, but there are experts who can figure out exactly how many electoral votes out of, say, Idaho’s four amount to 59.2%.)
That way, the electoral college would remain intact, on paper as well as in spirit, both Lord Voldemort as well as Lassie voters would feel more empowered than they would otherwise, and flyover country would retain its relevance.
Now all we have to do is convince all 50 states to adopt my system.