In one of the most hotly contested (and bizarre) presidential races in modern history, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with apprx. 61.8 million to Donald Trump’s apprx. 60.8 million, a difference of about one million votes as of yesterday.
Yet Trump won the Electoral College vote handily with (currently) 306 votes to Hillary’s 232 votes (a few counties and precincts are still counting). This has happened four times before in our nation’s history, most recently when Al Gore won the popular vote by 540,000 in 2000 but George W. Bush won the Electoral College. Other years it happened were 1824, 1876 and 1888.
The Electoral College – a body set up by the Founding Fathers – actually chooses the president. Each state gets a number of Electors equal to its representation in the House and Senate combined. So New York, with 27 House seats and two Senators, has 29 Electors, but tiny New Hampshire has only four.
In total, there are 538 Electors across the country. To win the election, a candidate must get a majority of at least 270 Electoral votes. Electors are expected to vote for their state’s popular-vote winner, although they are not legally bound to do so. In our nation’s history, 82 Electors have defied their states’ voters and went with their conscience instead.
The framers of the Constitution understood that if presidential elections were decided by the popular vote, candidates would focus their attention only on the largest cities and largely ignore many less populated states and regions. The framers wanted to ensure that the candidates visit as much of the country as possible, not just voter-heavy areas.
In the case of last week’s election, even though Hillary racked up big wins in New York, California, Illinois and other states with lots of urban voters, Trump still had a chance to pull off a strong Electoral College win because of his following in many less populous states. Plus he won battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Since last week’s election was so close in the polls near the end, there was speculation that the Electoral College vote could be tied at 269-269. In that case, the Constitution mandates that the House of Representatives chooses the president, with each state having one vote. The Senate determines the vice-president.
Since there was little doubt that the Republicans would maintain majority control of the House, there was no question that in the case of a tie, Trump would be selected as president. There was, however, some speculation that the election might tip the Senate to the Democrats. Had that happened, the Senate would likely have selected Tim Kaine as the VP – for a Trump-Kaine administration. Yes, it could have happened but the GOP held the Senate, likely 52-48.
Some see the Electoral College as a peculiar and mystifying institution that ensures only a few, select individuals will ever cast a direct vote for president of the United States. Others complain that the system rewards smaller states with more proportional power than the large ones.
In creating the basic architecture of the American government, the Founders struggled to satisfy each state’s demand for greater representation – while attempting to balance popular sovereignty against the risk posed to the minority from majoritarian rule.
Alexander Hamilton defended the Electoral College in Federalist Paper No. 68. He argued that it was important for the people as a whole to have a great deal of power in choosing their president, but that an “ … intermediate body of electors will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”
The system empowers states, especially smaller ones, because it incentivizes presidential candidates to appeal to places that may be far away from population centers. Farmers in Iowa may have very different concerns than bankers in New York, for example. A more federalist system of electing presidents takes that into account.
There are many groups who oppose the Electoral College and want to see it eliminated, which would require a constitutional amendment. Modern opponents of the Electoral College argue against what they call anti-democratic aspects of the institution, criticizing both the Electors and the state-by-state system of voting.
Yet unneeded tinkering with a process that is over two centuries old could destabilize one of the steadiest political systems in the world. Americans should appreciate the great and long-lasting constitutional tradition bequeathed to them – including the Electoral College system wisely created by the nation’s Founders.
Finally, if you have heard stories about an ongoing petition drive to get the Electors to vote for Hillary instead of Trump, read this article.