Electoral colleges vs popular vote explained

What??? Hillary Clinton had a majority but still lost? It may seem unbelievable and unfair, but really….it’s as fair as it’s been for more than 200 years.

 

Electoral College 2016

Electoral

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A Visit to Electoral Land

For those of you who need a quick US civics lesson I’ll give you the long story short. In the US Electoral system, voters don’t choose the President and Vice President directly. Instead, they vote for Electors who gather in each state (the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December) to cast their ballots for President and Vice President.

Each State is assigned a number of Electors equal to that State’s number of Congressional representatives plus two, being the number of Senators. Presently there are 538 Electors nationwide. The number change every 10 years as the US Census measures the national population and demographic.
In the early days of the US electors were not chosen by popular vote. In most states the Electors were chosen by the state legislatures. Clearly this meant there could a wide gap between who the people wanted for President who was actually.

Over time this all changed and by 1870 all states had gone to a where the Electors are actually chosen by the people so that in practice, the Electors are really proxies for the people. What makes the Electoral college system unique is that instead of simply counting the nationwide totals, the state by state totals are counted. It’s not enough for a candidate to win big in a handful of large states. Instead, a candidate must win across a wide spectrum of the electorate in several states.

Electoral Implications

A small swing in a handful of states seem to decide the elections. This may appear to be the case, but that’s only when the elections are really really close. We’ve see the colors of the electoral map change dramatically in a short space of time. In 1964 the entire map was blue. In 1972 the entire map was red. Whenever an election is close, by definition a small percentage of the population decides the race.

The system forces candidates to address people across the country. If polling were nationwide a candidate could theoretically sweep regions with large populations and win the nation-wide vote. This would basically leave rural America at risk of being ignored.

The marginal balance shifts to smaller states. In a national wide system a candidate could win heavily in a few heavily populated states and in the process ignore voters in less populated states.

Population and demographic changes are taken into account over time. Look at California, for example. For many years the state accounted for less than 5% of the Electoral College. Over the last few decades the population has increased sharply and now California is more than 10% of the Electoral College. Similarly, Texas and Florida have become more important in recent years. New York, on the other hand is less important than it used to be.

Minority matters. The election we’ve just witnessed is a case in point. It rarely happens, but from time to time a candidate wins enough states to obtain a victory in the Electoral College. Democracy is not about 51 people getting their way all the time and 49 people always losing. If year after year 49 people lost while 51 won over time the 49 would lose faith in the system. They could become effectively disenfranchised and systematically abused. From time to time the minority needs a break! They need to get their turn at the helm for the good of the greater whole. Much as I don’t like Donald Trump, maybe, just maybe, he’ll really fight for the minority that elected him and America will really be better. Or maybe he’ll turn out to be a disappointment and a disaster. If so, then so.  At least the minority can’t argue they didn’t have a chance.

States have rights. America is one nation, but one nation composed of 50 individual, sovereign states, each of whom can determine its own affairs. If the people of Maine want to divide their Electors proportionally instead of winner take all, that’s their choice. If the people of Alaska want to legally bind their Electors to vote according the will the of the majority, that’s there business and their right.

The College Provides A Safety Valve. There are 21 states at the moment where Electors can break from the popular will. Almost never do Electors vote as anything other than a proxy for the results of the electorate. But maybe, there will be a day when we will thank ourselves that possibility of Electors overriding the electorate exists.

At the end of the day, bizarre as it may seem, the Electoral College makes sense and serves America well. The Founders of America were deeply suspicious not only of central authority, but also of the madness of a crowd. The naive interpretation of democracy is majority rules. But majority rules can very easily mean majority dictates, majority is tyranny. Letting the minority win from time to time is maybe the price to pay for a stable democracy.

The other thing the Founders were afraid of was the possibility an election could be somehow manipulated so that the Presidency was not won but stolen. In those days the system was particularly vulnerable to the possibility that one or a few states could spoil the process and produced lopsided results on a national level.

Today the problem still exists, but the root cause is different. Make no mistake here the possibility of national elections being hijacked is just as real if not more in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century. We live in an age where sound bytes matter far more than serious reflection. We live in an age where masses of people can be swayed by an increasingly powerful media able to propagate ideas and spin them virally in a few clicks.

The crowd has a life of its own and the crowd is far more connected to each other than ever before. One day the crowd will turn into a stampede. When this happens, it will be really comforting to know there exists the possibility for one last bastion of sanity, a few souls, a few Electors in a few states who are brave enough and courageous enough to put forward their conscience and change the balance before it is too late.

On the back of Donald Trump’s election there have been calls for a change in the system. Those calls emanate from the frustration that democracy didn’t deliver the result they wanted. When that happens they are naive enough to believe the problem was that the majority didn’t win, so therefore democracy lost. I submit differently. I submit democracy won.

We may not all like the result. But rest assured, our system and the checks and balances we put on executive power mean the as a nation we are far strong than any one person in any one office, even if that office is the Oval Office.

I’ll be a conservative stick in the mud, habit driven toad and take my chance with the Electoral College.

Michael Sonenshine is CEO of Symfonie Capital LLC. He manages the Symfonie Lending Fund, Symfonie Angel Ventures and the SymCredit P2P Lending Platform.