Clinton popular vote lead revives questions about Electoral College system
Four years ago, Donald Trump was furious at the prospect of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney losing the electoral vote but winning the popular vote.
“Let’s fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice!” Trump tweeted. “The world is laughing at us.”
While Romney did not win the popular vote in 2012, President-elect Trump’s 2016 opponent might.
Trump presumably no longer sees the Electoral College as “a disaster for democracy.”
Some have long argued that the Electoral College is an anachronistic system that no longer makes sense for the modern population. Clinton’s loss has amplified those calls.
“If we really subscribe to the notion that ‘majority rules,’ then why do we deny the majority their chosen candidate?” former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said to the New York Times.
According to Scott Lemiuex, a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose, there are two primary reasons the Electoral College exists. One is that the founders wanted to keep candidates from ignoring smaller states in an era without mass media when information did not travel easily or quickly. The other was that counting slaves in calculating electors gave southern slave-owners greater representation.
“There was concern that, say, Pennsylvania and New York, would dominate the government proceedings,” said Tom Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University and an expert on presidential history.
In a modern world where most voters receive information constantly from phones and television screens, these justifications carry less weight.
“It’s like an antiquated idea from the 18th century that does not stand up to the harsh light of logic and reasoning in the 21st,” he said.
The country has evolved to embrace a general principle of “one person, one vote,” which the Electoral College is seen as a direct affront to.
The result has been presidential campaigns focused on the interests of a handful of swing states while reliably red and blue states are ignored. Cities with large minority populations are left feeling disenfranchised as voters in rural states are empowered.
The current setup has its defenders. In 2012, Richard Posner wrote in Slate of several reasons not to abandon the Electoral College.
He argued that it is easier to resolve disputes over the outcome of the race and prevents candidates from demanding a national recount. It also requires a president to appeal to people in multiple regions of the country to reach 270 votes.
Critics are unconvinced by such claims.
“This is simply indefensible,” Lemieux wrote in the New Republic. “The Electoral College does not serve any legitimate purpose that could justify its anti-democratic aspects.”
The anger is multiplied by the fact that this would be the second time this has happened to Democrats in 16 years, following Al Gore’s electoral vote loss in 2000. Whalen observed that the party has won the popular vote in every election since 1992 except 2004, but it still find itself without control of the White House or Congress.
“We’re living in a Democratic era but how many Democratic presidents have we had?” he said.
On one level, a Clinton popular vote victory is irrelevant. Despite online petitions and complaints, electors will vote for the candidate their states chose and Trump will be president.
On another, though, Trump could be subject to the same doubts George W. Bush faced in his first term.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are not going to view Donald Trump as a legitimate presidency,” Whalen said.
Many protesters and social media users have made exactly that argument, and academic explanations of archaic practices offer them little comfort. Passing a constitutional amendment to change the system seems an insurmountable task, given the need for bipartisan support and the fact that this dynamic has twice benefited Republicans in recent years.
Trump’s own past comments about the unfairness of the system suggest his supporters would have similarly challenged Clinton’s legitimacy if their positions were reversed. Prior to the election, Trump constantly insisted Clinton could only win if the election was rigged in her favor.
The Electoral College system may be outdated, but it still provides insight into America’s current cultural and political schisms.
The 2016 electoral map is striking, with the gap between rural and urban areas laid out in stark red and blue. Democratic votes are often concentrated around large cities and suburbs, while Republicans dominate wide swaths of the country’s less-populous regions.
The result is Trump’s strength was spread across a larger number of states, even if Clinton won some of the biggest states and got the most votes overall.
The election portends challenges for both parties if their goal is to prevent these divisions from growing and hardening.
Democrats face a challenge of expanding their reach into those more rural states without abandoning their principles. As demographics shift, Republicans will need to offer more for non-white voters if they hope to compete in states with growing African American and Hispanic populations.