Voting for the President
We have only one nationwide election, voting for the President of the United States, the chief executive of our nation. This is the one election that most clearly demonstrates the tensions inherent in our system of united states. The Founding Fathers ostensibly chose to imbue each state with a semblance of equal power in the Senate and in the Electoral College. They also chose to create a system for changing their rules in the future. To argue against the former is to suggest that there may be something faulty in the idea of dividing our nation into separate states. To argue against the latter is to grant the Founding Fathers a perfection which they did not claim for themselves.
As I have done above, let’s consider presidential elections from the viewpoint of a citizen. The reality is that we tend to vote for the candidate that we wish to see hold the office. We expect our vote to count. We don’t particularly care about the Electoral College unless it intervenes between our perception of the outcome and the actual result. The net of all this is that we are upset when we vote with a majority of our fellow citizens and our selection does not assume office do to the interference of the Electoral College. We could care less if the Electoral College certifies a result in line with the majority choice. We also prove generous enough to support the Electoral College when they certify our candidate over the majority selection.
Let’s do some interesting digging
We all know that Donald Trump won the electoral college, but lost the popular vote in 2016. When the Electoral College met, Trump received 304 votes out of 538. Hillary Clinton received 227. The remaining electors (“faithless”) selected protest candidates. Recall that we assign electors to each state based on their total of senators and representatives. Essentially, this grants smaller states a bonus in presidential elections. The District of Columbia also receives 3 electors (went for Clinton). Therefore, putting the faithless electors back where they belong, we get totals of 306 for Trump and 232 for Clinton. Trump won 30 states worth of electors, counting Nebraska, which allots elec tors proportionally, sort of. Maine does it, too, but they went for Clinton.
So, let’s drop the statewide bonuses, which are two for every state. That leaves Trump with 246 and Clinton with 192. That probably deserves a little contemplation. Our representative democracy is dramatically out of balance as far as coming anywhere close to representing the will of the voters.
The other contests in which the popular vote did not decide the winner
John Quincy Adams became President rather than Andrew Jackson and others despite Jackson receiving a plurality of electoral votes and more of the popular vote where it counted. This is the outlier because some states still had their legislature choose the electors and no candidate actually won a majority of the electoral college. It went to the House for a final decision. Add to that a situation in which all the candidates were from the same party… I don’t know what to say about that.
- Jackson did become President eventually.
Rutherford B. Hayes became President even though Samuel Tilden won the popular vote. Vote counts were disputed in enough states that the election was uncertain. A compromise was reached between the Republican and Democratic parties resulting in the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction (essentially granting Democrats the ability to manipulate elections in southern states without federal oversight) while placing a Republican in the White House.
- The final official electoral count was 185 for Hayes from 21 states and 184 for Tilden from 17 states. Remove the extra 2 electors for each state and Tilden is the victor, 150 to 143. I don’t know if that’s enough to change the outcome which was negotiated in back rooms with little interest in anything more than benefitting the political parties themselves.
Benjamin Harrison received 233 electoral votes to 168 for Grover Cleveland, the incumbent (as well as Harrison’s successor). The popular vote was 5,538,163 for Cleveland versus 5,443,633 for Harrison. Neither was a majority of the popular vote as two third party candidates claimed over 3% of that outcome. Democrat Cleveland won 18 states while Republican Harrison won 20.
- Adjusting for the extra two electors per state, Harrison still handily wins 193 to 132.
George W. Bush received 271 electoral votes to 266 for Al Gore, despite the popular vote going 50,999,897 to 50,456,002 in favor of Gore. Note that one of the District of Columbia’s electors abstained, so that should make Gore’s total 267. Thirty states went for Bush. Neither won a majority of the popular vote as two third party candidates claimed over 3% of that outcome.
- Adjusting for the extra two electors per state, Gore wins 227 to 211.
The last three of these (1888, 2000, and 2016) seem reasonable for consideration. The prior two are too steeped in particular forms of corruption that worked particularly well in their times. Looking at 1888 and 2016, it becomes clear that the very act of interceding between the popular vote and the result with “extra” representation may alter that result. Resorting to a direct count (House of Representatives numbers), but assigned in a winner take all fashion by state, leads to results that differ from the will of the majority. Mathematically, this makes sense as soon as representatives are assigned by anything other than a one representative to one voter correlation.
This brings us back to the question of intent on the part of the Founding Fathers. We know that we can alter their directives. They definitely intended that, but it still seems important to grasp their intention when they created the Electoral College. They had some good ideas, so what were they thinking with this one?