As election season draws nearer, pollsters, pundits and people alike are racing to make predictions on an election dubbed - usually with unique seriousness - “the most important one of our lifetimes.” While national polls say one thing, they should be scrutinized for one crucial reason: the U.S. president is not determined by popular vote.
Rather, an institution known as the Electoral College outlined in the 12th amendment, does the choosing. You the American voter, will actually vote for a set of electors in your state, representing either Donald Trump or Joseph Biden, who in turn will choose the president.
The popular vote winner in every state and Washington D.C., wins all that state’s electors. A state’s number of electors is the number of congressional seats the state holds - always at least three, with more added by population. Although not a state, the Constitution grants Washington D.C. three electoral votes. With 538 total electors, whomever wins a majority’s support (270+), claims victory.
Complicated, one might say. And there are several shortcomings of this method.
First and foremost, it does not represent the people. Hypothetically, a candidate could win with 21% of the national vote simply with majorities in each of the eleven largest states, without any support elsewhere.
In 2020, Washington D.C. and the five smallest states, Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska and both Dakota’s, which together have under 4.3 million people, will have 18 electoral votes. Ohio’s 11.7 million residents, 2.7 times as many, will also have 18 electoral votes. It is hard to argue against “one person, one vote,” when after all that is how every other election works.
Candidates focus almost exclusively on a handful of “battleground” or “swing” states which will determine the national result. All but roughly a dozen states are generally “safe” for one party even before a single vote is cast.
Indeed, 37 states from the 2000 election onward have backed the same party all five times. Why waste your time in Tennessee or Massachusetts, where the Republican and Democrat parties respectively will win, even if hell freezes over.
This extreme bias causes candidates to entirely disregard voters even in major metropolitan areas, including the country’s largest, New York City. Hundreds of thousands of new or shifted voters every four years, all across the country, make minimal difference.
Per the National Popular Vote organization, 57% of 2016 general-election visits by the four major presidential and vice-presidential nominees were in only four states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Furthermore, 68% of visits were in six states, add Michigan and Virginia. 94% of visits were in twelve states, add Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Those dozen states hosted 375 of the 399 total general-election campaign events across the country in 2016, despite having held just 30.7% of the country’s population.
As a result, turnout is higher in these few “important” states. National Popular Vote cites 2016 data showing that voting-age population, VAP, turnout in the “big twelve,” if you will, averaged 67.3%, juxtaposed with 62.2% nationwide. Ten of the 12 saw VAP turnout above the national average.
Twenty-four states meanwhile, went entirely ignored, and none of the remaining saw more than three visits. Certainly, in a popular-vote system, candidates should campaign according to population.
Republicans have won three elections since 1992, but the popular vote only once in 2004. Political analyst Nate Silver tweeted Sept. 2 that Biden’s chance of victory is merely 6% if he wins the popular vote by under one percentage point. If he wins by two to three percentage points that lead jumps to 46%. For comfort, his chances are 89% with a four to five point national lead.
Elections are one thing, but presidential action is affected as well. The controversial nature of Bush Jr.’s 2000 win undermined his ability to govern as he lacked a clear mandate. The same held true with Trump in 2016 and could repeat itself in 2020.
In all seriousness, the Electoral College may be entirely why Trump can publicly disparage the Democratic governors of California and New York with minimal worry. He’ll simply lose their combined 84 electoral votes, same as last time, no big deal as individual votes don’t matter.
Conversely, a president might pay disproportionate attention to the interests of swing-state residents as he needs their support for reelection. Consider five of the six states that flipped blue to red: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
How might we fix the system, you ask? Previous Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang contends a constitutional amendment is a “nonstarter,” with most other methods unpopular or unlikely to succeed in court. What more states could consider, however, is a system currently used by two states - Maine and Nebraska - in which the statewide winner wins two electoral votes, but the rest go to the winner of each congressional district.
It is unlikely that Trump in 2016 or Obama in 2008 respectively, would have otherwise been able to win electoral votes from said states. This could make visiting some of the so-called “fly-over” states worthwhile, and inch towards reflecting the people’s voices more accurately.
Nevertheless, you should most certainly register to vote if you haven’t already and educate yourself on the candidates for various offices, from national to local. November is fast approaching and this still, is without a doubt, one of the most important events of our young lives.