Sunday, November 13, 2016

Electoral College v. Direct Popular Election

Electoral College v. Direct Popular Election
P. Schultz

            The 2016 election provides a good example for debating the differences between a direct popular election for president and using the Electoral College. Trump won the vote in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by, as present count, about 600,000 votes. That is a lot of votes, surpassing the 500,000 vote majority Al Gore got in 2000 when he ran against George Bush. And why shouldn’t the popular vote decide presidential elections? What could go wrong?

            The 2016 popular vote count illustrates one feature of a direct popular election that doesn’t get too much attention, viz., the fact that such a scheme rewards candidates for president for amassing votes wherever they can. So, for example, Clinton got 2.7 million more popular votes in California than did Trump, and she got 1.5 million more popular votes in New York than Trump got. Under the Electoral College scheme, the size of Clinton’s win in these states is meaningless, whereas with a direct popular election makes such majorities quite meaningful. And given that frequently our presidential elections have been decided by much fewer than 4.2 million votes, it is possible that the election in these two states, given such large majorities, would decide the election nationwide. In the 34 elections since 1824, in 17 of these elections did the winner prevail by more than 4.2 million votes.

            But the question is not only what has happened but what might happen when the electoral scheme is changed to a direct popular election. For example, where would Clinton have better spent her time and effort under a direct popular vote scheme, California or North Carolina? It would have to be the former because winning a close election in North Carolina would not be as important as amassing as many popular votes in California or New York. Votes in closely contested states cancel each other out as it were, while votes in one party states are worth more insofar as they contribute more heavily to a candidate’s popular vote total vis-à-vis that candidate’s opponent.

            Would this be a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t really know but I do know it would be different. Maybe it would be worth a try but what is certain is that mouthing phrases like “Let’s democratize our presidential elections” won’t answer these questions, which it seems it would be prudent to answer before making the change.

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