Don’t Blame the Electoral College

Todd Gross

Todd Gross

Nov 11, 2019 · 6 min read
Published in

The actual reason Hillary Clinton lost the presidency

US Map with electoral votes (from Wikipedia page on 2016 US Presidential election)

As most or all of you know, in 2016 Republican nominee Donald Trump was elected President even though Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton got more votes. To be precise, Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232…but Clinton received almost 3 million more votes.

With the Electoral vote giving a different result than the popular vote, it’s easy for people who believe in one person one vote to say we should abolish the Electoral College. They point out that votes in states with low populations count more than votes from more populous states. For instance, Alaska had 3 electoral votes in 2016 with a population of just under 742,000 (estimate from the U.S. Census), or about 247,000 people per electoral vote. California, on the other hand, with 55 Electoral votes had a population of about 39.25 million people (same source)…about 714,000 people per electoral vote. Or just under 3 times as many people per vote as Alaska.

Counting everyone’s vote the same regardless of the state they lived in seems a lot fairer. And certainly, if there was a single national popular vote, the election outcome would have been different. But can we blame the difference on the Electoral College?

A different way to count the votes

I wanted to see what the 2016 election result would have been if instead of using electors for each state (plus the District of Columbia), we used the actual vote count. That is, instead of a candidate winning 3 electoral votes for Alaska, they win the total number of votes cast in Alaska. Here are the 2016 Presidential vote totals for Alaska (taken from the New York Times’s 2016 election coverage):

So in this way of counting votes, Trump would get not 3 electoral votes, but 318,608 actual votes. By counting votes directly and eliminating the Electoral College, we not only avoid issues with faithless electors (who vote for someone other than who won their state’s election), we also ensure that a vote cast in one state counts the same as a vote cast in any other state.

Of course, states with larger populations will have more votes. Here are the 2016 results for California:

So in my tally Clinton would get 14,237,884 votes from California, more than 40 times as many as Trump got in Alaska. Compare that to the Electoral College, where CA has 55 electoral votes to AK’s 3, which is less than 20 times as many.

Election results by state (plus DC)

Here are the vote counts I calculated for each state plus the District of Columbia. I need to note that Maine and Nebraska award 2 electoral votes to the state winners and 1 electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district. In my system, this is counting votes twice, which isn’t fair to other states. Instead, I assigned votes by congressional district…kind of. I couldn’t find actual counts by congressional district, so I assumed they had the same population and split the state votes equally.

Note that Trump won in all of Nebraska’s congressional districts, so he simply got all the votes. In Maine, Clinton and Trump each won one congressional district, so I simply split the state vote in half.

With that proviso, here are the state counts:

OK, so who won?

You might want to break out your calculator and check my math, because I’m guessing for many of you, the results aren’t what you would expect.

Final vote totals:

So in our election experiment, Donald Trump still wins the White House…and rather handily too. This despite Democrats gaining lots of extra votes in places like California and New York, and losing much smaller numbers in places like Alaska and Wyoming. The Electoral College distribution of electors isn’t what changed the election result to a Republican victory.

In fact, it made almost no difference at all. Look again at the electoral votes for each candidate (not counting faithless electors, of which there were 7 in 2016…not counting the 3 that tried and were thwarted by their states), here are the totals for each party:

The margin of victory is basically the same. This despite all votes counting for the state winner in my version: if 1.5 million Republican voters in California had stayed home, the electoral result would be the same, but the voter result would have Trump with 1% less of the overall vote.

OK, so why did Clinton lose then?

So where did those 3 million extra votes go then, if they didn’t give Clinton the victory? They’re still there. The reason Clinton loses even in our version is states are winner take all.

I mentioned California and New York, which are states with big populations and which went Democratic in 2016. But look at the state results again. Not every Republican state is small population-wise like Wyoming, there are also states like Florida and Texas with lots of people, and several states like Michigan and Missouri with more than average numbers. They add up. In pretty much the same way with overall votes as with electoral votes.

A final note

I don’t expect the Electoral College to be abolished any time soon. But I wanted to note that using votes instead of electors has an unexpected bonus. Because the winner of a state receives all votes cast there, and because each vote won (regardless of who they voted for) is counted in the final result, it actually makes sense for candidates to encourage as many people in their winning states to vote as possible. Even if they vote for someone else.

I personally like that counting individual votes versus using electors (1) makes each vote valuable regardless of the state they come from or the candidate they vote for (2) makes each vote worth the same no matter where it was cast (3) benefits candidates getting out the vote in all the states they win, regardless of who people in that state vote for.

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