Why Allocating Electoral Votes by Congressional District is Not The Answer

The problems with the way we choose our president are numerous and severe, including:

  • disproportionate attention to swing states (both during and after elections);

  • effective disenfranchisement of citizens who live in “safe” states for one party but prefer another party, leading to low turnout;

  • threats to our national security due the small number of states a foreign hacker can target to change the outcome of the election;

  • the fact that the winner of the election may not be the person who got the most votes—an outcome that we will see more and more.

Some people, recognizing the seriousness of the problems with our system, have suggested an alternative: allocating electoral votes by congressional districts instead of giving all of state’s votes to the plurality winner. 

Each state has a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress—two votes for the Senate, and a number that varies based on the state’s population for the House.  Under this proposed system, each state would allocate two votes at large for the overall winner of the state and the rest of the electors would go to the candidate that wins each of the congressional districts.  This is how Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes.

Proponents of this system argue that it would be more fair, and that it would be less likely to result in a candidate winning the national popular vote while losing the Electoral College.  However, this is not true for one simple reason: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a serious problem with our representative system. For example, in 2016 and 2018, Republican congressional candidates in North Carolina won about 50% of the congressional votes in that state, but claimed victory in 10 out of the states 13 districts (the Ninth District will have to vote again following election fraud in 2018).

Under this map, a Democratic candidate could get a plurality of votes in North Carolina (as Obama did in 2008) but still only be awarded only 5 out of the state’s 13 electoral votes (winning in 3 districts plus the 2 at-large votes). 

Because of gerrymandering, allocating electors by congressional district will actually be more likely to result in popular vote losers becoming president than the current system.  If the 2012 election had been decided based on congressional districts, Mitt Romney would have defeated Barack Obama in the Electoral College 274-264, despite losing the popular vote by nearly five million votes.  Donald Trump also would have won under this system in 2016 despite losing the popular vote. The incentive to gerrymander would increase exponentially if congressional districts determined control of the White House as well as control of the House, making the problem even worse than it is now.

As candidates adjusted their strategy to focus on the 16% of districts that are “swing” districts, a split between the popular vote and the electoral college will be even more likely.

The vast majority of voters would live in “safe” districts, meaning that most people still would have little incentive to turn out to vote and their concerns and issues will be ignored as they lose out on federal funding to swing districts. The swing districts will become the new target for election meddlers.

Proponents of district-based electoral allocation recognize that gerrymandering would have to be addressed before the system would be fair. However, the Supreme Court has, so far, declined to intervene to stop partisan gerrymandering.  Even if the Supreme Court does decide to strike down some of the most extremely gerrymandered state maps, and districts were redrawn compactly to preserve natural communities, as in this simulation, there would still likely be a relatively small number of swing districts because most communities are predominantly Democratic or predominately Republican.

Accordingly, allocation of electors based on congressional districts would only make elections more unfair and would not solve the problems with our current system.

Note: In another blog, we will discuss the problems with splitting a state’s electoral votes proportionally.

Only Because of the Electoral College

This article reports accurately that anti-immigration, shaded by xenophobia and racist overtones, is the central plank in Donald Trump‘s reelection platform. This is possible only because of the electoral system. A national election would not win a plurality for any candidate with this political stance. 

Only because a small number of people in three or four swing states respond passionately to the president’s message are we seeing this policy become the hallmark of the administration. 

Those who want the national popular vote to pick the president should be aligned with everyone who wants a reasonable immigration policy. 

Reporters covering the president should never fail to explain that it is only the electoral system that makes the president’s position tenable. 

The right response is to go directly to the people in these same swing states and put the question: do you want a reasonable immigration policy? If the answer is yes then you should have the national popular vote pick the president. Democracy requires people with competing views to speak up and debate with each other. Trusting the elites to make decisions is not only hopeless, it is also inconsistent with the moral obligation everyone has to state his or her or her position. 

One way to make a statement is to vote. The legislatures in the swing states should put the question of the national popular vote on the ballot. Where it is permitted people should petition to get the question on the ballot. 

Why the Electoral College is biased against women

This is well known: from David Leonhardt in NYT

“As Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes, a large majority of Americans support both ‘protecting abortion rights when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life’ and ‘keeping abortion legal when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.’”

No president could oppose this majority view and still win the national popular vote. 

But the national vote and views widely held in the nation do not matter in selecting the president. We are not one country when it comes to electing the president. In that activity only a few impassioned factions of voters in a handful of states matter. 

Opposition to abortion even in the direst circumstances is found principally among evangelicals. For stochastic reasons evangelicals compose a large percentage of the population in the four critical swing states that now determine the choice of the president (Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin). Evangelicals also have an exceptionally high turnout rate, making them an estimated 20-40% of voters in these key states. They vote overwhelmingly for the candidate who inveighs against abortion. That is the incumbent, as it was George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. 

The impact is seen in two respects: who gets elected president in close elections like 2000 and 2016 and who gets appointed by Republican presidents to the Supreme Court.  

A major reason Hillary Clinton did not carry the crucial swing states is that she has been a lifelong advocate of choice. (The million words written about her personality as the explanation for her loss of the plurality by narrow margins in these four states are a different example of bias against women.) 

The result is that the view of a large majority of women and men on the issue of abortion have had very little impact on Republican presidents since 1980. 

To be reelected, the current president for purely political reasons feels he must appoint people to the Supreme Court who do not necessarily honor the constitutional right of women to control their bodies even when raped or at risk of dying. 

Because he wants to be reelected, the current president is unlikely to oppose the draconian anti-abortion laws just passed on this issue in a few states. These states are taken for granted in the general election already, but he will be motivated to seek the votes of evangelicals in the swing states. That is the reason he is not likely to have the Solicitor General oppose these laws. That is the reason he will not speak against these laws even though the large majority of Americans oppose them. 

This bias against abortion even in dire situations stems from the electoral system. 

Future Elections will be Close. That Means that We’re Going to See More Popular Vote Winners Lose.

Some defenders of the way we chose our president insist that a “wrong winner” election—when the person who gets the most votes does not become the president—is a “rare divergence” that is unlikely to happen again (despite the fact that it has happened in two out of the last five elections).

But according to our statistical analysis, the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College 32-40% of the time in close elections.  And as Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight has explained, the current trend of very close elections—within single-digits percentage points—is likely to continue.  The closer the election, the more likely a split between the national popular vote and the Electoral College.  In addition, in recent elections, there have been fewer swing states than in the past, and more states where the margin of victory was very large. The result: more and more elections where the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College.  

Nor does the current system give a long-term advantage to either party.  In modern elections, the Electoral College has appeared to be skewed against Democrats.  But, as Democrats and Republicans agree, this trend won’t last forever.  Swing states stop swinging, and safe states for one party shift to become safe states for the other.  The next “wrong winner” could just as easily be a Democrat who wins the Electoral College and loses the national popular vote.  In addition, as many, including Donald Trump, have rightly noted, no candidate has ever actually campaigned to win the national popular vote.  There is no telling which party would have an advantage if they did.

But one thing remains certain: so long as we stick with our current system, candidates will exclusively campaign in the current crop of swing states.  Most of America will be ignored, and their voices silenced. 

Electoral College On Track to Reward National Loser With Landslide Victory

According to this model the incumbent is on track to win by a margin of 294 electoral votes. That means 416 electors to 122 electors. This astounding landslide would be won by the most unpopular president ever re-elected, based on the fact that the president's disapproval rating typically runs more than 10 percentage points ahead of his approval rating. His broad and deep unpopularity is manifested in the extremely unusual fact that nearly half of voters say they will never vote for him. That is a much higher number than were dead set against Obama in 2011, when he was still battling the Great Crash and had only just passed the not particularly well-received Affordable Care Act. 

It is not necessary for the United States to have a method of choosing the president that re-elects such an unpopular president. The populist movement that seems to animate people on both the left and right should include as a core tenet agreement on the choice of an election method that guarantees the defeat of a president much less popular than his or her rival from an opposing party.

Of course the Democrats do have to nominate someone more popular than the incumbent. The odds of that happening are much better than the odds of that person defeating the president.  

Head-scratching does not produce any good reason why an extremely unpopular president should be able to get re-elected against a popular opponent.

  • Does the incumbent's unpopularity stem from the failure of voters to understand what he is really like and what he is really doing, which if they understood they would endorse? That doesn't seem likely given the enormous attention the president attracts to his own utterances and deeds.

  • Is the unpopularity merely transitory? The polls show remarkable steadiness in perception and over time views have hardened in place rather than changed.

  • Should we prefer a system where an elite can keep political power in the face of opposition from the poorer, less influential, less educated, or simply less empowered but more numerous majority? In other words, is an authoritarian system better than democracy? That is the fundamental question faced by governments all over the world, now that democracy is under challenge more than at any time since the Second World War.

The electoral college hates choice for women

The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.

It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position. 

But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals. 

The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.

Electoral college system encourages climate change

A strong majority of Americans supports the government leading in battle against climate change. But the electoral college system privileges states that account for the major part of greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three swing states that were integral to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, were among the top 12 states in aggregate emissions.  These states would have to change their energy use the most in order to defeat climate change. Change is hard. 

 Therefore in 2016 and again in his 2020 campaign it serves Donald Trump‘s interests to support climate change denial and to be in favor of continuing business as usual, which is obviously threatening global climate disaster. If it were not for the electoral college system the United States would be much more likely to have a climate change policy that reflects the wishes of most Americans and all scientists who pay any attention to this subject. 

All the other states on the list of 12 are taken for granted by both parties. The key fact is the presence of the three swing states in the dirty dozen. 

See this chart:

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Electoral college shapes foreign policy

This would not be taking place if it were not likely to win votes in Florida. Without carrying Florida the president has precious little chance to win re-election. But for an important segment of Florida voters both Cuba and Venezuela are seen as enemy states. Hostility and intervention there wins votes, whereas these same voters may support, or at least not mind, the president’s withdrawal from Syria or his amicable attitude toward North Korea. 

Spanish-speaking voters in Texas or California are far more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump’s policies toward Mexico and Central America, from where they’ve come. But they are relatively indifferent to his Cuba or Venezuela policies, since most do not trace their origins from those areas. However, these voters are taken for granted or ignored in presidential politics because of the anti-democratic  electoral college system. 

This is another in a litany of bad aspects of the selection system. 

The Electoral College Distorts the Primary Process

The Electoral College system has a tremendous impact on candidates’ campaigns and policies.  But it also dictates who the candidates are in the first place.

The 2020 Democratic primary is in full swing, and voters have a staggering number of candidates to evaluate. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 49% of Democratic voters think it’s more important that a candidate is more likely to win compared to only 35% who think it’s more important that a candidate’s position on the issues is closest to their own.  A focus on electability in itself is not terribly surprising—any primary voter should be concerned about a candidate’s appeal to the broader electorate.  But under the Electoral College, primary voters can’t just evaluate which candidate they think will do the best across the nation as a whole.  Instead, they think about electability in terms of a fraction of a fraction of voters—that is, swing voters in swing states. As Ed Kilgore explains:

“Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.”

The problem is, voters tend not to be very good at determining electability. So the primary system forces voters to make a decision based on the perceived preferences of just a tiny sliver of the population, a double distortion that leads candidates even further away from the policies that most Americans actually want.

The Electoral College Exposes Businesses Outside Swing States to Punishment

This is from Bill Bishop whose newsletter requires a subscription:

“It’s also worth noting that talk is going around DC that the US and China may keep the original $50B in tariffs, but that the Trump Administration has asked the Chinese to move theirs away from targeting the GOP base to less politically sensitive sectors, even proposing alternative industries to the Chinese side.”

What makes a business sector “politically sensitive”?

Campaign donations is one answer, but since Citizens United individual donations by the mega-wealthy have become far more important than corporate donations. Businesses generally balance donations between both parties and want to avoid alienating customers or hurting their brand by being labelled to the left or right on the political dial.

What matters is location. A business with many employees that is headquartered in a swing state is “politically sensitive” because its managers and employees matter to the close-run pluralities that define a state as a battleground.

Or did you think it was just an accident that Chrysler was twice bailed out by the United States government?

The Electoral College system exposes businesses headquartered on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts to the alleged conduct described by Bishop.

It’s in the interest of all businesses to have the presidency determined by national campaigns, with the winner always being the person who gets the most votes. Only under these circumstances will presidents seeking their second term have to regard all businesses with many employees as “politically sensitive.” 

Electoral Presidency

Donald Trump is the only president in the history of polling never to have gained the support of a majority of Americans for even a single day.

This sort of presidency is only possible because of the Electoral College system.

Donald Trump deserves full credit for his firm grasp of the essential attribute of this system: it benefits a candidate nothing to do what most people want. All that matters is what turns out the plurality in a few states.

The problem for most Americans is the system. It is constructed so as to create an irresistible pull into the presidency of candidates who ignore the preferences of a majority of Americans.

If you don’t like this, don’t blame Trump. Change the system.

The Electoral College Makes Him Do This

According to this article, the President will push "divisive" issues, particularly immigration, in order to win re-election. What is left out, because it is assumed wrongly to be as unchangeable as the weather, is that the Electoral College system makes not only the incumbent running for re-election but also all candidates push issues that can win a mere plurality in the swing states of the Midwest. 

If President Trump had to win a national plurality he would have overwhelming incentive to propose reasonable compromises on immigration. 

It is too easy to criticize the president for taking a position unpopular with most Americans when that same position is quite in accord with his likely voters in the few states that will probably pick the president in 2020: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 

Anyone in elected office or who seeks elected office should realize that if the national vote does not choose the president then all candidates in 2020 and forever will shape their policies, promises, and conduct to accord with the views of a small fraction of Americans in a handful of states.

Battlegrounds divide country by tribal politics

As the chart below shows, race and religion are attributes that are highly divisive.

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White evangelicals compose between a quarter and a third of the voting population in the Midwest battleground states. These states (stochastically) determine the presidency. Therefore candidates in the general election, such as the incumbent, adopt views appealing to evangelicals that are not necessarily held by the candidate personally and are anathema to the rest of the country.  In this way the electoral college educes hypocrisy, plays on division,  and intensifies hostility among Americans. 

Does anyone think that battles among people based on religion and race are good for an open and tolerant democracy?  Yet that is what the electoral college fosters. 


You cannot preach temperance from a barstool. A country cannot promote democracy globally without embracing it at home. 

As Professor Tooze writes, our country risks losing its birthright as the modern birthplace of equal rights — of which no one is more important than the right to vote with equal weight for all elected officials. 

This is why presidential candidates should have to compete to win the most votes cast by all Americans.

Believer War

Among its almost innumerable barbarisms, the Electoral College system pits evangelicals against non-church goers in an unasked-for struggle for the plurality in the three Midwestern states that decide the presidency in this century: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 

Here's the people count on a national level as of now, according to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:

White evangelicals, according to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, now make up 18.6 percent of the population, 4.4 percentage points less than the 23 percent of the population who profess no religious commitment.

Among white evangelicals, Republicans outnumber Democrats 61.1 percent to 21.7 percent, according to Burge. Among those without religious affiliation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 53 percent to 21.5 percent.

Religion and party, it seems, correlate closely. In the trio of battlegrounds, the politics is especially fraught because the size of the two factions, believers and mere ethicists, is about the same. This is an invitation for politicians to promote political divisiveness in pursuit of turn-out. As you may have noticed, you-know-who, the vindicated one, does tend to stoke that on occasion, despite the incongruity of himself as an evangelical apostle, not to mention the flock of epigones in his crowd of courtiers. 

Still another virtue of the national vote as a means of eliminating state battlegrounds is that it would tend to lower the stakes in localized, religiously grounded, factional conflicts and let the large consensus about religion that is in the First Amendment and in the hearts of most Americans provide ample freedom for everyone to follow their own beliefs without the aid (or interference) of state power. 

Former Governor LePage’s Racist Attack on the National Popular Vote

Former governor of Maine Paul LePage stated that white people will become a “forgotten people” if the winner of the national popular vote became the president.  LePage went on to say that if the president were chosen by popular vote, “white people will not have anything to say. It’s only going to be the minorities that would elect.” 

This is not the first time LePage has made racist comments, including referring to ”people of color or people of Hispanic origin” as “the enemy” and  falsely claiming that “90 plus percent” of drug dealers in Maine are minorities, who “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Maine is currently considering joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which all member states would pledge their electors to the winner of the national popular vote if states with 270 electoral votes join the Compact.   

If the Compact goes into effect, it will guarantee that all votes across the country would be counted equally, regardless of race. Under the current system, many African-American voters see their votes systematically disregarded, along with many other Americans who do not happen to live in swing states.

Republicans' Small-State Advantage Is an Optical Illusion

Besides the obvious fact that Republicans won 'wrong-winner' victories in 2000 and 2016, one of the main reasons why GOP leaders believe the Electoral College generally helps their candidates is their supposed advantage in small states.  That bit of conventional wisdom is not confined just to Republicans.  Here's a recent statement from a respected neutral source, the fact-checking website Politifact:

Two factors explain why today’s political environment, if anything, gives Republican states a leg up in the Electoral College. First, smaller states get a disproportionately large impact in the Electoral College, because each state (plus the District of Columbia) gets a guaranteed two electoral votes before the rest of the electoral votes are allotted based on House seats (and thus, indirectly, on population). While there are some smaller blue states, the smallest states are disproportionately Republican-leaning.

Looking at any of the familiar blue-red Electoral College maps from recent elections, it's easy to see why such a perception took hold:

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Huge red swaths on the map represent vast, sparsely populated, solidly Republican states—Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas.  Blue small states, in contrast, tend to be small in area as well as in population—Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, the District of Columbia.  They're easy to overlook, so glancing at a map may result in an optical illusion rather than a reliable answer.  Instead, let's examine actual numbers from elections over the last three decades:

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In four of the last seven elections, the Democratic candidate won more small-state electoral votes than the Republican!  Over the same period, the median number of small-state votes won by the two parties is exactly the same—30 each.  In the two most recent elections, votes from small states split almost evenly, as they gave a one-vote margin to Obama in 2012 and a two-vote edge to Trump in 2016.  In short, the idea that small states reliably give Republicans a leg up in the Electoral College is a myth.

Jack Nagel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. This is Part II of his series debunking the myths that the Electoral College always benefits Republicans and that the national popular vote would necessarily benefit Democrats.  Read Part I here.

Blast from Past

Below is the electoral map from 1960, the famous Nixon-Kennedy contest. The irrelevant popular vote was very close, 34.2 million to 34.1 million. But Kennedy won the Electoral College by 303 to 219:

nixon map.png

This big margin concealed numerous close statewide races. Labelling a state as a swing state if the popular margin statewide was 3% or less, we see that Kennedy won these swing states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Nixon won these swing states: Alaska, California, Florida, Montana, and Washington.

Obviously there were so many swing states that the election felt like a national election. Moreover, the swing states were so different demographically that the candidates each had to appeal to big, complex coalitions of factions in order to prevail.

The Electoral College system did not appear to contribute to divisiveness, despite the extreme closeness of the outcomes in so many states and the indicative if meaningless closeness of the national popular vote.

Obscured somewhat by Kennedy’s large electoral victory was the untenable nature of the Democrats’ Electoral College block. Kennedy won New York, the state with the most electors at 45, by a 5% margin. This result marked a giant reversal from Eisenhower’s victory there in 1956 with 60% of the votes. The Democratic coalition in urban and suburban areas was racially, ethnically and religiously mixed. This coalition plainly was the base for Democrats to depend upon in future elections, given population gains in the former free states. Its composition, however, differed radically with the party’s southern base, from where 81 Kennedy electors came. That explained Lyndon Johnson’s presence on the ticket. But it foreshadowed the Republican choice to align its party with white voters in the south while relinquishing its historic Lincolnian alignment with African-Americans. New York’s results in 1960 taught the Republicans to look south for winning in the future. By 1968 Nixon’s southern strategy was in place.

With the popular vote virtually evenly divided, the parties could have taken different paths toward political victory if the national popular vote selected the president. The Electoral College system, however, made the southern electors, chosen almost exclusively by white votes, so critical that the Republican Party could not resist reshaping its policies, programs, and promises to take the pluralities in these states. The divisiveness of American politics today stems not from the popular vote in 1960 and thereafter, but instead from the pernicious electoral system.

The Midwest May Not Love the Wall

This chart from Gallup shows that twice as many Republicans as independents think immigration is the country’s top problem:

immigration chart.png

Because there is no way the incumbent president can be elected without a big share of independent votes, the natural question is why he has elevated the wall to such political attention.

But the chart shows national averages. The results in the states that determined the 2016 election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – are now shaping President Trump’s policies.

At least in Michigan, whose electoral votes are critical to both parties’ nominees, independents do not agree with Trump’s insistence on a wall.

These independent Michiganders should support the move to have the national popular vote pick the president. They share the views of other independents in other states, and in numbers there is strength.

Institutions Matter

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors inveigh against the use of impeachment to defeat the incumbent, of whom they plainly disapprove. Instead, they say “If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.” As one of these institutions they list elections. Page 218.

But the most important of all elections, the only one that directly relates to their goal of defeating the incumbent, is not democratic.

If a Democrat were to defeat Trump in 2020 by winning the electoral college without prevailing in the national popular vote, the Electoral College would certainly neither be strengthened nor would it be considered a democratic institution.

Indeed, it is easily possible to imagine the outrage among Trump supporters if they delivered him in 2020 a national popular vote plurality or majority and yet the swing states swung back to the Democrats, denying the incumbent a second term. Those Trump backers in this hypothetical would deserve support from everyone who believes in democracy.

One thing the incumbent is right about is this: he supports the idea that the winner of the national popular vote should always be president.