Electoral reform debate: U.S. edition

Donald Trump lost the popular vote badly, but won the election. Do voters really accept that system?

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People vote at a polling site at Public School 261, November 8, 2016 in New York City. Citizens of the United States will choose between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - Nov 8: Voters cast their ballots for this year's presidential elections in the Foundry United Methodist Church in downtown Washington, DC. (Photograph by Keith Lane)
Voters cast their ballots for this year’s presidential elections in the Foundry United Methodist Church in downtown Washington, DC. (Photograph by Keith Lane)

Hillary Clinton amassed more than 2.8 million votes more than Donald Trump in the November election. This is the fifth time in American history that the candidate who won the national popular vote lost the electoral college vote, and thus the presidency. This distortion happened in 2000 with George W. Bush versus Al Gore, and in 1824, 1876 and 1888. Donald Trump, like Bush at the start of this century, cannot accurately claim that the people have spoken and, at least according to the overall popular vote, chosen him (but who’s to say that will stop him). In the end, Trump won 306 electoral college votes to Clinton’s 232.

This 2012 Donald Trump tweet, from the day after 2012’s Barack Obama win, found new traction after the election:

This system of having what’s now 538 electors represent states and formally choose the president dates to 1787, and the framing of the U.S. Constitution, in which the electoral college is enshrined. A constitutional amendment could change that, but changes to America’s founding documents face notoriously high thresholds for approval: abolishing the system last failed in Congress in 2009, and it passed the House in 1969 but was filibustered to death.

Ten states have conceived of a workaround: keep the college intact, but instruct electors to choose as president the candidate with the most votes nationally. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact includes California, the state with the most electoral college votes, and New York, which has the third most, as well as tiny Rhode Island (plus the district of Washington, D.C.). Combined, they amount to 165 electoral votes; if states equaling a 270-member majority join the coalition, those states agree to switch to a national vote system, essentially making it law of the land—and the president would have to win the most votes.

The reform movement has been around for decades, but picked up steam after Bush-Gore. In addition to the “every vote counts” mantra, it would reshuffle the campaign map away from only a few swing states, and toward larger population centres like New York, Los Angeles and Houston, which presidential candidates now only visit for their donors.

“This action will help ensure every vote is treated equally and places New York at the forefront of the battle for fairer elections and strengthen our democracy,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the day before the election, when he signed legislation reaffirming his state’s commitment.

The problem: coalition members are all reliably Democratic blue states—the side stung by the results discrepancy in 2000 and now 2016. (Arizona’s lower House passed a bill in February and it has bipartisan support in the Republican state’s Senate, but is poised to die in committee.) Don’t expect Republican states to warm to this idea, especially after a Trump win, says Gary Gregg, a political scientist at Kentucky’s University of Louisville. He argues that popular vote supporters fuse partisanship with their policy idea, because the national system would free them up to focus on the major urban centres and ignore small-town America and their issues—something they must reconsider when states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are battlegrounds. “If they didn’t have to appeal to rural voters, they could be more ideologically pure for the left,” says Gregg, author of Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College.

That rationale would undermine the logic behind statewide votes electing state governors in vast states like Texas or California, and becomes less relevant in an age with digital voter targeting when anyone can tap into a rally via cellphone. Vox writer Andrew Prokop counters that the current system winds up giving oversized weight to rural voters. Also, the 2016 election results already reveal an extreme rural-urban partisan divide.

Gregg raises another problem with a national popular vote system: what happens in a near-deadlocked race. Party lawyers would scour the country for precincts where they can sue to disqualify a handful of mail-in votes or count questionable ballots that went uncounted. At least the 2000 election in Florida, as messy as it was, was confined to single corner of the country. “That saved us a national nightmare in that election,” Gregg says. Imagine how much worse the mess could have been in 2016, with Trump loudly complaining (without evidence) about voter fraud and rigging, he adds.

In other words, it seems America is stuck with the system its got, unless perhaps the Republicans get stung by the same electoral college/popular vote discrepancy in 2020 or 2024.