Polls show that Trump could lose the national popular vote by 10 million votes and still win the Electoral College

Defining the Problem

What is the essential, core, most important problem with the Electoral College system?

Here are some answers that I do not think are accurate:

  • The votes in every state are not counted equally in choosing the national leader

  • The votes in low population states have greater weight in choosing electors and this is unfair to voters in high population states

  • The candidates only visit swing states

These are true statements. But the core problem is that the system does not oblige the parties to compete for every vote in every state; instead, they can take the outcome for granted in at least 40 if not more states. More than 80% of voters and citizens live in the land of the ignored.

In the 40 or so taken-for-granted states the parties do not work as hard as they could to register voters, get out the vote, promote access to polling places, lobby for voting by mail, fight for ex-felons to vote, or take any of the other steps that would promote participation in the election. Citizens see that the system does not seek their votes and that their votes do not matter. So millions of people do not participate in the general election.  The total number of non-participants ranges between 15 and 70 million.

Voting is an important act in the creation of a common culture, a widespread sharing of beliefs and values. A system that does not seek to involve tens of millions of citizens is inclined to derogate the importance of those people and to breed in them a sense of resentment toward the rest of society.

Furthermore, an executive whose victory depends on a bare plurality of a handful of states – the current situation – has much less incentive to govern in response to the wishes of the majority of citizens. Not only in a democracy, but in any form of government, both fairness and utilitarianism dictate that government should aspire to serve the interests of most citizens. A method of choosing the president that requires the aspirants to appeal to most people is much more likely to produce solutions to collective problems – like how to address climate change or pay for public goods like education and transportation or provide health care insurance.

So non-participation and non-responsive government are the two aspects of the core problem with the Electoral College system.

Suppose that there were many more than a handful of swing states. Let us imagine that the top 10 states in population, with more than 50% of citizens in aggregate, were all swing states. Then the parties would have to seek every vote in these populous states. It would still be true that small population state voters picked more electors per resident than would be the case in the populous states. But if participation went up 10 to 30 million, concern about inequality of voting power between small population states and big population states would not be so terribly important.

The problem with the system in this century is that now and in the future states with most people are not contested.

The Way We Choose the President: The System Promotes Social Division and Despair – and it is not difficult to fix

Remarks delivered orally at Harvard Law School, October 19, 2019

The Electoral College system – I mean not only the words in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution that say state constitutions and laws determine the selection of electors, but the web of state laws and political party practices that define how the United States picks presidents – contributes mightily to the worst ills of the American democracy.

This system causes the two major parties pay little to no attention to more than 80% of the voters, located in 40 or more states, during the general election for president.

The system creates irresistible incentives for the two major parties to divide the nation regionally and demographically by appealing to race, gender, and ethnicity as the markers of party affiliation.

The system does nothing to force the two parties and their leaders to compromise on solutions to collective problems that a huge majority of people want and desperately need.

 The system opens the door for dangerously unqualified people to become president without winning a majority or plurality of support from citizens.

A huge majority of Americans prefer a system in which the presidential candidates in the general election seek everyone’s vote and the one who gets the most always becomes president – but a small number of elected officials in a small number of states block that desire from being reflected in changes in state law.

The system was conceived in the sin of slavery and has always thwarted progress toward democracy. In our time its particular evils put the survival of the Republic at risk by leading an increasing number of Americans to give up on our system of government while tolerating authoritarianism to a degree unprecedented in our history.

And despite the well-examined complexities to altering anything in the Constitution, there are numerous practical ways to improve this system.

The starting point is to define the essence of the problem.  

The bad, radical attribute of the existing presidential election system is not that it allocates electors in a way that is not proportional to the population. The principle of equality across all voters in all states entrances many theorists who would like one person-one vote on a national level to become the defining characteristic of selecting the national executive. This concern elevates the ideal over the practical. Unquestionably, the current system gives a voter in thinly populated Wyoming more influence in choosing the president than a voter in big-as-a-country California or previously-a-country Texas. But really so what? This factor does not cause anyone involved in the general presidential election or in any White House to pay unusual, or probably any, attention to voters in Wyoming in comparison to voters in other states. It is not the reason that Republicans give short shrift to California and Democrats for their part write off Texas in the general election.

The problem instead is the winner-take-all method that exists in all states except Nebraska and Maine. The other 48 states and the District of Columbia award all electors to the plurality winner. Because the outcome is predictable in more than 40 states, this system causes the two major parties to take for granted and ignore in the general election the voters in states with more than 80% of the population. Instead, states that randomly happen to be closely divided by party preference decide the outcome.

Napoleon said that if you want to understand people, you must see the world the way they saw it when they were 20 years old. I was 20 in 1968, and in that year Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey (George Wallace finished third) by about a half-million votes in the irrelevant national contest, but smashed him the electoral count by 301 against 191.

The election felt like a national contest. The two major party candidates competed closely in states as far flung as Alaska and Delaware, California and New Jersey. True, a majority of voters were taken more or less for granted, but the number of electors in states that were close-run affairs totaled 223, 41% of the total. Here’s the list:

States where margin of victory was less than 5 percentage points (223 electoral votes):

  1. Missouri, 1.13%

  2. Texas, 1.27%

  3. Maryland, 1.64%

  4. Washington, 2.11%

  5. New Jersey, 2.13%

  6. Ohio, 2.28%

  7. Alaska, 2.64%

  8. Illinois, 2.92% (tipping point state)

  9. California, 3.08%

  10. Delaware, 3.51%

  11. Pennsylvania, 3.57%

  12. Wisconsin, 3.62%

  13. Tennessee, 3.83%

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by about three million votes in the purposeless national count, but lost the electoral count by 304 to 227. But this election never felt national. Even while the saturating media reached everyone with seemingly minute-by-minute news, the general election resembled a report on Big Ten football contests.

The two campaigns fought to margins of less than 5% in about the same number of states as in 1968, 11 plus the Omaha district, but these had only 133 electors, 90 less than in 1968. Instead of composing more than 40% of electors, the swing states were just less than 25%. Moreover, 56 of these 133 were in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These Midwestern states, with their older, whiter, and more evangelical Christian populations than the rest of the country, were the decisive battlegrounds.

States where the margin of victory was under 1% (50 electoral votes; 46 won by Trump, 4 by Clinton):

  1. Michigan, 0.23% – 16

  2. New Hampshire, 0.37% – 4

  3. Pennsylvania, 0.72% – 20 (tipping point state, including 2 faithless GOP electors)

  4. Wisconsin, 0.77% – 10 (tipping point state, excluding the 2 faithless GOP electors)

States/districts where the margin of victory was between 1% and 5% (83 electoral votes; 56 won by Trump, 27 by Clinton):

  1. Florida, 1.20% – 29

  2. Minnesota, 1.52% – 10

  3. Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, 2.24% – 1

  4. Nevada, 2.42% – 6

  5. Maine, 2.96% – 2

  6. Arizona, 3.55% – 11

  7. North Carolina, 3.66% – 15

  8. Colorado, 4.91% – 9

Indeed, this chart exaggerates the number of states that were seriously in play during the two months of the campaign. A more practically accurate count would be only six, the ones where the result was a margin under two percent: States with a population of less than 60 million, less than 18% of the national total.

In 1958 Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called “Franchise,” in which Norman Muller of Bloomington, Indiana is determined to be ideally representative of the entire populace. As “Citizen of the Year” he answers questions put to him by a computer that in turn selects the chief executive that the data suggested likely best to serve the nation. Asimov set this story fifty years into the future, 2008. What we have now is not as good a system, because the battleground state populaces are not a representative sample. Here is a polling project that tracks swing voter attitudes – unnecessary if the national vote dictated the outcome of the election.(In addition, according to current polling, most Americans do not believe the current chief executive is the best person to hold the presidency.) 

Asimov wrote the story to warn of the danger that computerization would supplant democracy as the American way of choosing leaders. Instead, demography has created a situation where computerization enables both parties to exclude most Americans from meaningful participation in democracy.

What has happened in the half-century between 1968 and now is that Americans have steadily moved to concentrate in a small number of states. In part because people have chosen to live where they find like-minded citizens, most of the heavily populated states are politically dominated by a single party.

Here is a list of the top ten most populated states in the country:

  1. California (Population: 39,747,267)

  2. Texas (Population: 29,087,070)

  3. Florida (Population: 21,646,155)

  4. New York (Population: 19,491,339)

  5. Pennsylvania (Population: 12,813,969)

  6. Illinois (Population: 12,700,381)

  7. Ohio (Population: 11,718,568)

  8. Georgia (Population: 10,627,767)

  9. North Carolina (Population: 10,497,741)

  10. Michigan (Population: 10,020,472)

In the meantime, the low-growth states are also typically dominated by a single party. One reason is that they each have small numbers of electors, and the runner-up party has a very low probability of prevailing in a winner-take-all contest for electors. The game is not worth the candle for the Republican Party in Vermont or the Democratic Party in Oklahoma in the general election. So each lets the other win without making much effort to achieve balance.

The combination of urbanization-suburbanization in a few states and party dominance in most inevitably is the reduction in the number of swing state electors. It’s important to note the number of swing states has oscillated around a dozen over the last fifty years, but the number of electors (and hence population) in these states has fallen significantly. Therefore the composition of the battlegrounds in reality and appearance does not give us an election that involves enough voters.

Admittedly, the winner-take-all system has always caused the major political parties to ignore huge swathes of voters. However, in the case of big wins, like Barack Obama in 2008, or true landslides like Reagan in 1984 the fact that the parties pay no attention to most voters is not noticed. But in any reasonably close election, the left-out problem is inescapably obvious. Moreover, the problem is much worse in current times.

 In 2020 Donald Trump will probably lose the national popular vote as he did in 2016. Current polls suggest he will run behind the Democratic nominee by five to eight million in the pointless national tally. But he has a good chance of winning in the Electoral College by choosing the hop skip and jump strategy that gave him the 2016 victory.

His strategy will be to count on, and take for granted, the typically reliable Republican base of 230 electors, hop to a Florida win of 29 electors, skip to a Wisconsin victory for 10, and jump to prevail in Omaha for a single elector that produces the necessary 270.

The president presumably targeted Joe Biden for defeat in the Democratic primaries because he thinks Biden would win Wisconsin whereas he believes he can defeat Elizabeth Warren or another nominee in Wisconsin. This explains the Ukraine story.

Demographics is destiny. Americans are not about to flee urban and suburban precincts and head to the emptying states. The Internet produced the death of distance but social networks, business opportunity and industry concentration have greatly enhanced the magnetism of a small number of geographic locations. As this next map shows, the economically big states are like big countries, and the rest are of comparatively negligible size. Wyoming’s economy is on par with Tunisia, and neither is about to get big.

Whether the topic is democracy in the United States or a world order, attention must be paid to forgotten people. The current electoral system, like international governance, does not solve that problem. On a comparative basis, most states are small in population and economic opportunity, and the election system causes not only these small states but also most of the big states to be ignored in the most important election – not just most important for the United States but also most important for the global future of democracy.

There are no benefits to this system, save for the fact that a handful of elected officials in swing states may enjoy outsized attention from both campaigns every four years. The odds of a swing state governor being selected for the vice presidency or getting a cabinet post promise are higher than for similarly situated people in non-battleground states. This is hardly a justification for keeping the system unchanged.

There are at least three distinct deleterious consequences to the presidential selection system’s focus on a diminishing fraction of voters in a few states.

First, the policy preferences of the vast majority of Americans are rejected by Republicans and not adequately pursued by Democrats. These include but are not limited to the desire of most people to see the government lead a victorious battle against climate change, against widening income and wealth inequality, against unaffordable and inadequate health care and against xenophobia and racism. Instead of responding to the wishes of most people, the campaigns and candidates address the desires (and inflame the division) of those in swing states. When the population of closely contested states is less than a quarter of the whole, it is no surprise that the fourth are not representative of the entirety. Moreover, all politics truly is local, as House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said. Perforce, the swing-state voters care more about their local issues than national issues.

 Second, by taking for granted the outcome in 40 or more states, the two parties do not compete vigorously to drive turnout in those states. As a result participation in democracy in the United States is lower than in most democracies. If the parties competed for every vote everywhere turnout would go up by 10% to 30%, or between 15 to 45 million. The additional voters would more accurately reflect the demographics of the population. Te electorate would be less white and younger. It’s likely that the newer voters would have more faith in our democracy if they participated and their votes mattered to the outcome.

Third, the system creates a huge incentive for the Republican Party to present itself as the party of whites and males, and further as the champion of evangelical white Protestants. That is because by mirroring these constituencies the Republicans are appealing to large constituencies in the swing states of the Great Lakes. (Between 20% and 30% of the likely voters in those states are evangelical Protestant whites, and exit polls in 2016 suggested 80% of white evangelicals voted for the Republican nominee.) The system also appears to reward the Democrats for cultivating a base more heavily weighted toward women and minorities than the total population, and arguably that lures Democrats into ignoring the economic and social concerns of whites in swing states.

The system, in short, has excluded most Americans from full participation in the choice of the president. It has skewed the parties’ policies and popular bases in ways that have exacerbated the social divisions that elections always seek to exploit but governance discovers are obstacles to useful collective action. And the system is racist and sexist in its effects.

 If you agree with me so far, you will agree that the goal of reform is to force the two parties to compete nationally to win a national vote count.

A Constitutional Amendment is obviously difficult because of the supermajority requirements in both Congress and among states in the ratification process. But to pass a useful Amendment it is not necessary that it weight every popular vote equally. It could dictate that every state allocate electors proportionally to the first decimal point, and only the top two parties get electors. Harvard’s Larry Lessig has proposed exactly this meritorious idea. It should be introduced in Congress forthwith. The goal is to get a negotiation going that would attract votes from small state representatives and senators. That system would cause the parties to compete everywhere for the extra tenths of electors, preserve the inequitable weighting of electoral votes for low population states, and still produce 270 or more electors in almost all circumstances.

 The way to guarantee that the top two parties get electors might be ranked choice voting. The two existing parties might well agree on this measure if for no other than self-preservation.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact of course is a reform that obviously would force the parties to compete everywhere for every vote. They would raise more money, and spend along a rising marginal cost curve weighted by likelihood of persuasion until the predictable total reached a clear majority. They would ignore geographic location. (Probably this would be a big boom to local radio, broadcast TV and newspapers in small towns, by the way.)

But the Compact’s problem goes into effect only when it bonds states with 270 electors. It is unlikely to do so unless a few swing or red states switch from winner-take-all to the Compact.

 In all states, between two thirds and three quarters of the electorate tell pollsters that they think the national vote winner should always be president. Professional politicians in swing states, however, tend to like the attention that comes their way from the two parties and their deep pocketed donors every four years. So Democrats and Republicans in elected office in swing states can be inclined to disregard the will of their voters and to oppose the Compact.

In swing and red states, Republicans often hold at least one chamber in the legislature or the governorship and these professional politicians correctly understand that their party’s largely white male base is not sufficient to win a national vote. Their party would have to change to win nationally. Change threatens re-election of incumbents. So they are reluctant to pass the Compact.  

There are two ways to overcome these problems. First, put the Compact on the ballot. This is possible in 26 states. Ideal targets include at least Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Arizona, Utah, and Montana. If the Compact were on the ballot in Ohio in the general election held on November 5, 2019 it would probably pass. The same is true if the Compact were on the ballot in Michigan in November 2020.

The reason this has not happened yet is lack of money for these ballot contests. The cost for getting on the ballot in all five states is about $15 million, and the cost for waging an effective campaign for winning would be about another $50 million in total. The aggregate of $65 million is about two percent of the total that will be spent on the 2020 election.

This number, $65 million, is also less than the amount raised by the Bernie Sanders campaign for president in 2019.

The Compact is much more likely to win a ballot vote in any state than Senator Sanders is to win the nomination of a party to which he does not belong.

The other way the Compact can be passed is to wait for a Democratic landslide to sweep Democratic majorities into control of a surprising number of state legislatures and governorships. Then, push the Compact through before the pendulum heads in the other direction. This is the low cost strategy.

(Also the Republican Party, like the Whigs in the ante-bellum era, might face extinction, and then to change its positions and base. In the past Republicans have supported a national vote method. This is a possible corollary of the Democratic landslide scenario.)

Either way the Compact goes into effect by bonding states with 270 electors, it will face legal challenges funded by those who think that a national vote would lead to the election of presidents who did not serve their special interests. I believe the fate of such challenges depends as much or more on the facts presented as it does on the ingenuity of the legal arguments or the discoveries of legal historians about the intent of the Framers.

 If the Compact has barely obtained the 270 electors and lacks the direct mandate of any voters, then the Republican-tilted federal judiciary will feel empowered to side with their party and find a way to invalidate the Compact. But if the reform garners a big majority of electors and also shows voting strength by winning in a ballot contest in a few states, then I think the judiciary will be much more likely to accept the result.

I also believe that if one election were held in which the parties competed for the national vote and the people all over the country reveled in their new found participation, I think the Supreme Court would be loath to end the new system.

There are at least two ways that the parties could be forced to compete for a national victory without enactment of the Compact.

The first is called pairing. If a state sure to vote Democratic and a state sure to vote Republican each appointed electors who promised to vote for the national winner, then depending on the likely outcome of the election and the number of electors affected by this move, the parties might decide to compete for the national victory.

For example, if New York made this move contingent on Texas taking the same step, the resulting combination of 67 electors promising to vote for the national winner is big enough to cause both parties to seek a national victory.

 As another example, with the hop, skip and jump strategy I outlined earlier the incumbent president is not likely to win more than a bare majority of electors. As it happens, in both North Dakota and the District of Columbia approximately 15,000 signatures suffice to put on the ballot next year a measure that enacts this contingent pairing. It’s not a compact. If both passed, they would be effective for November 2020.

If the incumbent president could not get the three electors of North Dakota merely by winning the plurality in that state, then he would have no clear path to electoral victory. He and his party would have to give serious consideration to pursuing a national vote victory, and of course the Democratic nominee would do the same.

 A second move would be for a single reliable Republican state to appoint electors who promised to vote for the national candidate. Based on the statistical work of my nonprofit, every reliable Republican elector bound to vote for the national winner instead of the state winner reduces the probability of an electoral win for the Republican nominee by two percent unless that Republican wins the national vote. For example, if Ohio’s 18 electors were to vote for the national vote winner instead of the Ohio winner, then the probability of Donald Trump winning the Electoral College would drop by 36% percentage points. If you think it’s fifty-fifty now, that probability would fall to 14%.

But finally, the most important way to boost the chances of the Compact or any national vote reform in any battle through the judiciary is to make it very well known that the Electoral College winner take all system now and all too often in American history has been an instrument of political supremacy for whites and against blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants.

And it also must be understood generally that this same system has produced an overzealous reliance on identity politics as opposed to advocating policies good for the large, troubled middle class.

A widespread understanding of the pernicious effects of the current system for both parties, I believe, will cause the judiciary not to overturn any reforms that move the country to using the national vote for choosing the president.

I believe in the better angels of Americans. Reform of the election process would let that belief triumph over the dark vision of humanity that the current times daily seem to make real and the electoral system sadly encourages.  

How Would Campaigns Try to Win the National Popular Vote if That Was the Way to Pick the President?

At a conference aimed at answering this question, carried on C-SPAN, a number of distinguished experts described the many ways the general election, stretching from about June to November every four years, would be different from the current system. Here's a summary, mixing different comments and my own views without attribution and with a little license:

1. Brand. The major parties would create national brands for their candidates. They'd advertise on big national television events, like the Olympics, fall baseball, popular tv shows, and the NFL Sundays. Networks for the first time would get a lot of advertising money. The brands would aim at broad popularity. Extremist views, whether for open borders or open season on immigrants, would be discouraged. 

2. CPM/vote. With every vote worth the same, the major parties would assess the cost of reaching every possible vote regardless of geography. To do so, they'd consider social media ads, local newspaper, local broadcast, local radio, and even billboards and mailings. Like all modern advertising of products, they would aim at assessing the cost of reaching and the ways to appeal to voters on the most individual level possible. For a change, all voters would get attention, and views that appealed to the biggest blocks of voters would be the views espoused by the parties. The parties would change more than the views of the voters would change. As a result, broadly popular views would be endorsed by both parties, such as action against climate change, for gun control, against greater income and wealth inequality, and for cheaper health care. The parties would debate tactics more than premises on these topics. 

3. The result of a cost and issue based analysis would be to find a way to present a pitch to everyone, everywhere. Neither party would take for granted an outcome in any precinct. There'd be no reason to do so. The closer the election, the harder the parties would work to get the attention of the undecided and the possible non-voters, while also building get out the vote systems everywhere in the country. There are several hundred thousand possible Democratic votes in North Dakota no Democratic nominee tries to reach and there are also several hundred thousand Republican votes that in the general election their candidate does not bother soliciting. North Dakota would get attention at last. This is just an example.

4. Turn-out would rise, especially among Latinos and young people, two populations typically ignored and hard to reach in the general election.

5. The winning candidate could truly claim legitimacy.

6. More money would be spent, but as it would shift more toward social advertising and the number of voters would rise then the cost per voter would go down.

7. The parties would use the primary process to increase registration. They would maintain registration records through to the general and use that data to reach voters. Generally participation would rise to registration levels, and therefore voting participation would increase by as much as 20% to 40% in most states.

8. With every vote mattering equally, the parties would argue for better ways to enable voting, such as voting by mail and more access to the polls. The parties would still be motivated to suppress voting for the adversary, but they would limit those efforts to disqualification as opposed to altering methods of voting, because in every precinct both major parties would have votes to get, as opposed to the current system where one party has little to no motivation to battle for votes in as many as 40 states. 

9. The intensity of pursuit of voters in swing states would decline, and the result would be to provide greater continuing support of both political parties by the national party in those and all states. The parties' state structures would rise in importance.

10. Third parties would have a much reduced chance of affecting the outcome, whereas with the current system the much disregarded Nader cost Gore the plurality in Florida in 2000 even though Nader got almost no votes. Indeed, only a national party, built on a broad coalition, could hope to win a national general election if every vote mattered equally. 

Things Could Change

How would the major parties and their candidates behave if they had to win the national popular vote plurality to become president? Making Every Vote Count will hold a conference on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC to discuss answers to this question.

Here are my somewhat speculative beliefs.

We have to start with a point of view about what happens in the general election of the president. Mine is that this is right: “boosting turnout [in the general election], primary election persuasion, and perhaps persuasion in special elections [such as for ballot measures] are possible…But evidence of persuasion in general elections remained negligible.”

If turnout is the chief goal of the major parties in the general election, then it follows that each of the two will define their bases in a new and different way. Namely, in the first instance they will pay little attention to the geographic location of their likely voters. No longer will they focus on how to obtain a plurality in a handful of states. No more will they identify voters primarily according to zip code and census tract.

Instead, the campaigns, with their billions of dollars, will determine how to achieve a majority of the votes (they need a plurality but will aim at majorities, not knowing how many votes a third or fourth party candidacy may siphon away from the two major parties). To do this calculation, they will analyze the tendencies of all those likely to vote, and also those who are registered but less likely to vote, in every precinct in the country.

Based on the analysis, the Republicans and Democrats will determine the left-right political leaning of the likely and less likely voters. Presumably they will discover that about 45% of the possible national electorate is inclined one way or the other, and about 10% is undecided. That is what most polls suggest.

For these two different bases of their leaners, the Republicans and Democrats will then divide the potential voters into demographic segments. Each segment will be defined by age, gender, religion, race, favorite spoken language. They will poll each segment nationally in order to determine policy preferences.

For example, do Democratic-leaning old Hispanic females attach great priority to preserving Social Security and Medicare? If so, then the Democratic nominee will highlight his or her commitment to that policy, perhaps in Spanish language advertisements, and bewail the risk to these benefits that the Republican nominee will present.

As another example, do Republican-leaning middle aged white males fear an assault weapon ban by a Democratic president? If so, the Republican nominee will want to ask the Democratic nominee in a debate whether he or she will seek such legislation.

Policy will follow pragmatism: the parties are not going to push policies that deny them the possibility of winning the national vote.

The question then presented is how the parties’ policies will change if they must win the national vote to get the prize. My view is that it depends on how many segments need to be bonded into a coalition in order to compose a majority. The Democrats and Republicans have needed only to achieve this feat as against each other in less than ten states. In 2020 they are going to try to build winning coalitions in not many more than Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, while paying relatively little attention to their respective bases in the rest of the country. But to win a national election, the job of building winning coalitions necessarily will require a different calculation.

It may be that opposition to abortion will still be critical to the Republican Party whereas hostility to immigrants may be politically disastrous. It could be that supporting aggressive government action to move to a clean power platform might be a central plank of a Democratic platform, while support for an open border is anathema. Polling and practice will have to answer these questions.

After figuring out the composition of hypothetical national bases, the parties then will decide how to reach their likely voters. Cost is king. I imagine that neither party has unlimited funds, and in any case during the general election timing matters a great deal. My guess is that for the first time in modern political history the parties will each spend money on national television in order to present – “brand” – their candidates during the summer. They will buy advertising time during the Olympics, the World Series, and nationally broadcast football games. Historically, almost no money has gone to national television, because of course only a handful of states have constituted the battleground and it would be a waste to spend advertising dollars on national shows.

On the other hand, the cost for reaching demographic segments through local radio, local television and local newspapers is fairly low in most regions of the country. This is not true in major urban markets, but it would be very cheap for the two parties to buy local media advertising space in the Dakotas, for instance. For the first time in history, the outlets in thinly populated non battleground states would be a valuable way for either party to reach their bases. While their messages would be different, both parties would be able to generate several hundred thousand turned out voters in the Dakotas very cheaply. In most elections the Republicans have left many voters unsolicited and not encouraged to vote in the thinly populated states. They would not pass up the opportunity to run up the score in these places, while Democratic leaning segments would be less numerous but perhaps even cheaper to reach.

In most states it is probable that the general national election would cause the gap between the two parties to close. This might be uncomfortable for state politicians in whichever party now dominates in a particular state. For instance, there’s little doubt the Republicans would seek turnout in California, as opposed to dedicating no advertising or organizing effort to the state now. The result might be revival of the two party system in the Golden State. Perhaps Democrats would not like that. On other hand, in pursuit of this goal the Republican nominee might favor a compromise policy on immigration.

Social media permits advertisers to target consumers by individual identity, advertising with versioned content to each pair of eyes. Such a capability would be used by both parties to encourage their bases to turn out. Mass media does not enable nearly as much individuation in advertising so it is reasonable to think the current trend of spending proportionally more in campaign dollars on social media would continue.

But the targeted voters would be identified without regard to geography. Social media advertising therefore would enable either party to reach all farmers, all Mormons, all Native Americans – all of any segment. As a result, demographic segments that are ignored, and sometimes derogated, by the current system would have much more importance in the election. They would still be subject to the inexorable law of numerosity: if your group is small, your electoral weight is small. But today many populous groups – African Americans are the leading example – have an inequitably minor impact in the general election, because many of their members are located in states where they are outvoted by people in a different political party and so they choose no electors from those states.

It might be that with national voting suddenly relevant, the Republican Party would need to adopt policies more sympathetic to the concerns of African Americans. Just like in Lincoln’s day.

Surely there are many other consequences to adopting a national system. But for sure many myths would be dispelled. All could see that a national election would empower people in states with low population and rural inhabitants, whereas they are taken for granted now. All would recognize that minorities of many kinds – based on religion, race, etc.—would have to be assembled into coalitions to support either of the major parties, while now they are ignored or taken for granted.

Some will argue too that a national election will threaten the viability of national parties. But there’s no way a regional party can win a national election unless and until the country’s electorate decomposes into at least four or five different regional parties. The existing media are not likely to facilitate this development – they present candidates the way they sell burgers, trucks, and software. Everyone gets the same products, with scarcely any regional variation.

However, in the unlikely event that national elections for president cause the deterioration of the existing Republican and Democratic parties, one can ask two questions. How much will they be missed? And doesn’t that mean the antagonists could agree at last on amending the Constitution to create a run-off so that under all circumstances the winner of the presidency has won a majority of the votes cast in the country?

Our Presidential Selection System is Biased and Broken

Presidential elections where the winning candidate loses the national popular vote are becoming the new normal. It’s happened in two out of the last five elections, and would have happened again in 2004 if just 60,000 votes in Ohio had gone the other way.  In future elections, we can expect a split between the electoral college and the national popular vote up to 30-40% of the time.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes:

There is nothing normal or democratic about choosing our president through a system that makes it ever more likely that the candidate who garners fewer votes will nonetheless assume power. For a country that has long claimed to model democracy to the world, this is both wrong and weird.

And there is also nothing neutral or random about how our system works. The electoral college tilts outcomes toward white voters, conservative voters and certain regions of the country. People outside these groups and places are supposed to sit back and accept their relative disenfranchisement. There is no reason they should, and at some point, they won’t. This will lead to a meltdown.

Fortunately, we do not have to accept a status quo that routinely and systematically disenfranchises voters.  Under the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, all votes would count equally—no matter who you are or where you live.

The System Tears Us Apart

The political parties change their shape—their leaders and policies—in order to win political power. In their current forms, they contribute to dividing the populace and intensifying animosity.

One major reason is that they both take for granted the outcomes in more than 40 states, leaving as few as six as the contested battlegrounds that determine the electoral college outcome. In those states, the two parties focus on turning out their base and then appealing to swing voters, but those swing voters do not necessarily represent in full the views of most swing voters in the country as a whole.

As a result, the presidential election system does not encourage either party's nominee to conduct a unifying, holistic campaign. Instead, the two major parties maximize negative campaigning, reflected in the content of their advertising and the themes of policy proposals. After such divisive elections, the country remains as factionalized and internally discontent as before the voting takes place.

Think the Electoral College will always favor Republicans? Think again

This article makes the very strong case that demographic shifts may lead to a “purple” or “blue” Texas in the very near future, making it extremely difficult for Republicans to win in the Electoral College as it exists today. Though some Republicans may oppose reforming the presidential selection system because they believe it confers a benefit to their party, the article urges them to rethink that position:

“[Republicans] warn that without the Electoral College, a few big cities would dominate the process, at the expense of rural areas and states. What they ignore is that 1) the 10 biggest cities have only 8% of the U.S. population and 2) urbanites don’t all vote the same way.

Trump got nearly 4.9 million votes in California and 2.8 million in New York — many of them in small towns and rural counties — but under the Electoral College, those votes meant nothing. Someday, the same may be true for the millions of conservatives in Texas.

Democrats take the peculiar view that each citizen’s vote should carry the same weight. They also contend that the candidate who gets the most votes from actual people should win — which happens to be how races for virtually every other office in the country are decided.

If Republicans want to salvage their future, they would be wise to join with Democrats now in pushing to elect presidents by popular vote. Because once Democrats have the upper hand in the Electoral College, they may just decide to keep it.”

Though it is understandable that both parties view the system—and any proposed reforms, particularly the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact—through the lens of the advantages they perceive to their own party, it is clear that all Americans would benefit from having their votes count equally in deciding who becomes the president.

The Electoral College at Work

From Axios newsletter August 9:

“Trump campaign officials and sources close to the president tell Axios that they believe Democrats' extraordinary charge that the president is a ‘white supremacist’ will actually help him win in 2020, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.”

If true, this is the electoral college at work. There is no way that this “charge” would help any candidate who had to win the national popular vote. But the demographic mix of the handful of swing states is quite a bit different than the rest of the country, and so this alleged claim by “sources close to the president” could be what they really think.

The Electoral College, of course, has its roots in the country’s attitude toward race. By extending the disproportional power given to the slave states in the House into power of the choice of the president, the system virtually assured that presidents would not limit the perpetuation and even expansion of slavery. This worked until 1860, after which the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave the Confederate states still more weight in the House by counting former slaves fully, even while they had little to no chance of sending an elector to vote for the president they wanted.

In different ways now, the Electoral College still tilts the scales of political power against people of color.

“It’s the swing states, stupid”

Here is a rare article about the economy and the upcoming election that addresses a sad reality: the only economies that really matter are the economies in the small number of states that will decide the next election. The rest of the nation—where the vast majority lives—hardly matters at all.

Demography is Destiny

As the chart below shows, the swing states' demographics — meaning their balance of whites and non-whites — are, put simply, hugely different than the mix in other, politically uncontested states. So the America that chooses the president is not the actual America. It is nonetheless the America that produces the political stance of, most obviously, Donald Trump.

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It is Also About Where they Live

This chart from the New York Times shows something very important but leaves out the key fact. Again and again political reporters leave this out.

The electoral college system does not magnify every political faction. It minimizes some, such as college educated (also high turnout) or African Americans. It magnifies white evangelicals because of their large presence in the few midwestern swing states, where their voting exceeds 30%:

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Presidential elections are about the past

A truism in politics is that elections are about the future. Typically the change candidate wins.

But actually with the broken system that prevails in the United States the presidential election is more about the past. The backwards looking candidate is advantaged.

As the chart below shows the states where America is changing the most rapidly are almost all irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential election.

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Thanks, Electoral College

Almost all the voters in the problem locations below are ignored by the system. Florida, it gets attention, and sometimes North Carolina. But the candidates in both parties take for granted the outcome all the rest of these states. Given the plight of the people in these states, the voters really ought to be able to have all their votes count in a national election of the president.

There are two maps shown. The first is Lincoln’s, used to inform him about the slave population. The second, is Raj Chetty’s report on where low income parents are located. The overlaps show, among other things, how long the Electoral College system has denied voice to the people – of all races! – in these states.


Here's Why Splitting Electoral Votes Proportionally Is Not the Answer

In another post, we discussed the problems with dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district (in a word: gerrymandering).  Another proposed solution to the winner-take-all problem is allocating electors proportionally based on the votes of the state at large.  Simply put, if a candidate won 70%-30% in a state with 10 electoral votes, 7 votes would go to the winner and 3 to the runner-up. 

The upsides of this proposal are straightforward: more votes would matter, turnout would increase, and candidates would have incentives to seek votes in more places. But proportional representation is unlikely to create a national campaign, nor would it make every vote truly equal.  Indeed, a proportional system may lead to an even more undemocratic result than is likely under our current system.

While there would be fewer wasted votes under a proportional system, it would not make every vote count. Absent a constitutional amendment, the votes would have to be rounded to the nearest whole elector.  So there would still be wasted surplus votes and votes for the runner up that do not count in the final tally.  In close elections, this could lead to the winner of the national popular vote still losing the presidency.

But splitting electoral votes proportionally would raise a whole new problem: a dramatic increase in the likelihood of third-party candidates throwing the election to the House of Representatives.

If a third-party candidate could get enough votes to win just a few electors in a close election, that candidate could prevent anyone from reaching the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.  In such a case, the election would go to the House of Representatives, with each state getting a single vote regardless of population. This is a profoundly undemocratic outcome that would lead to voters losing their voices entirely. 

Looking at past elections, the House would have decided the outcome in at least 2000 and 2016 if electors were awarded proportionally.  But if elections actually occurred under the proportional system, the percentage of elections decided by the House would be much higher as the incentives for third-party candidates grew exponentially. In large states, a third-party candidate would be able to garner at least a couple of electoral votes by winning only a tiny fraction of the vote in that state, and in a close election, that could keep any party from reaching 270.

Once the vote goes to the House, horse-trading, corruption, and backroom deals could lead to a candidate being inaugurated despite having little popular support.  So proportional representation is not cure for the evils in our system and would create a host of new and bigger problems.

There is also a feasibility problem under any proposal that involves splitting votes. Unless all or almost all states signed on, the campaigns would still not be truly national—and many states will be unwilling to split their votes for fear of losing political influence. 

Splitting up a state’s electoral votes makes sense for a few small states—like Maine and Nebraska—that are perpetually ignored.  But most states adopted a winner-take-all system in order to increase their political heft. They wanted candidates to campaign in their states in hopes of winning a large number of electoral votes at once.  Therefore, states will be unlikely to unilaterally split their votes for fear of losing that clout. 

Safe states would hesitate to give up any of their votes to the other party, and swing states would hesitate to lose their special status. And as long as just a few big swing states kept the winner-take-all system, candidates would have a strong incentive to focus their campaigns on those states alone rather than battling it out for the one or two swing electoral votes in most other states.

The best way to make every vote count—and to make presidential candidates campaign for every vote—is to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  Unlike splitting electoral votes, no state is put in the position of unilaterally giving up any influence because the Compact does not go into effect until enough states join to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote will become the president.  And the Compact is over 70% of the way there—only a few more states need to sign on to make it a reality.  When that happens, all votes will count equally—no matter where you live.

Youth must be served

As this article explains, voter turnout among youths can be decisive in elections.

But the electoral college system in this century is biased against young voters. Why? Swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have some of the highest median ages in the country:

The key swing states Florida and Pennsylvania have the first and second highest percentage of residents over the age of 65. Voters in these older states decide the election and the young people everywhere else are taken for granted. 

Nationally women can win

This article starts with the assumption that the American electorate is somehow biased against women candidates. In fact it is the electoral college system that is biased. If the president were elected by the national vote then women candidates would usually be competitive and of course one already would have won.

The American people are not biased against women. The system is. The shame is that feminists regardless of gender are not more vigorously rallying against the electoral college system.

The reason the system is biased against women is that by chance in the swing states a large fraction of women are evangelicals. They do not support much of the agenda that commands the adherence of a large majority of women nationally. So this minority fraction of women frustrates what most women want. This is a failure of democracy.

Now that the Supreme Court has opted out of its historic role of promoting democracy, it is even more important for women at large to change the electoral system. Feminists can’t count on the Supreme Court, and especially not on the five male conservative members, to help them out.

Think the Electoral College benefits small and rural states? Not so fast.

Conventional wisdom says that a national popular vote will harm the interests of small, rural states.  It is true that because a state’s electoral votes equal its representation in the House plus two votes for each Senator, small states do have a slightly higher share of Electoral College votes than they would have if the votes were distributed in accordance to population alone.

But how much does that really matter? The fact that Idaho has four electoral votes instead of two does not mean that candidates try to win any votes in Idaho.  No candidate visited the state in 2016, nor did candidates flood the airwaves with ads, nor did they discuss policy issues of particular concern to Idaho, nor did they set up extensive get-out-the-vote operations.  As a result, only 59.2% of eligible voters in Idaho voted for president in 2016.  Rhode Island, which also has four electoral votes, was similarly ignored completely by candidates and, not surprisingly, had correspondingly low turnout of 59.1%.

On the other hand, New Hampshire, which has the same number of electoral votes as Idaho and Rhode Island, got 21 visits from candidates in 2016, plus countless ads and a serious get-out-the vote effort. Not surprisingly, turnout for the presidential election in New Hampshire was 71.4%—the second highest in the nation. 

The differing treatment of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Idaho is explained by the fact that New Hampshire is a swing state while Rhode Island and Idaho are not.

New Hampshire gets attention in spite of the fact that it is small, not because it is small. 

In a piece in Bloomberg, Justin Fox explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, people criticized the Electoral College because it unfairly gave an advantage to big states and big cities, at the expense of small states. That’s because back then, the five biggest states—New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—were all swing states. As Fox notes, any advantages conferred by the system to big states, to Republicans, or to Democrats, are transient:  

It’s easy enough to look back at a presidential election and determine how the Electoral College hurt or helped your side. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to come up with reasonable suppositions about which states will play a more or less decisive role in an impending election. Determining who the Electoral College helps or hurts over the long run, though, may be too tough a puzzle for anyone to solve.


The best way to think of the Electoral College may be as a wrench that occasionally gets thrown into the works of American presidential elections, delivering a result that is at odds with the popular vote. I would beware of becoming too confident that said wrench is on your side. 

In other words, the only constant of the Electoral College is that it benefits swing states.  Most small states, like most big states, get ignored. 

And if you don’t live in a swing state, the consequences go far beyond how many ads you are likely to see in an election year. Your industries  get ignored, your funding gets cut, and you are less likely to get disaster relief funding than people who live in the handful of states that decide elections.

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.