The Electoral College and the Rules of the Game

By now, everyone who is paying attention should recognize that we have not yet elected a President because we don’t actually vote for the President.  While we the voters elected thousands of individuals to office this past Tuesday, we did not elect a President but rather an Electoral College.   They will be the ones who elect a President and Vice President when they meet in their respective state capitals next month.  In early January, the result of those votes will be revealed in front of a joint session of Congress and, assuming one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, we will finally have a true President-elect.

Seems pretty silly that, in the 21st century, we are operating under a system created in the 18th century that was explicitly designed to be undemocratic.  And isn’t it a bit more than ironic that that system is likely to elect a Republican President who failed to win the popular vote for the second time in the past five elections?   Isn’t the will of the people being thwarted?

Well, the thing is that we will never actually know whether the “will of the people” was thwarted because that implies that we know what it is.  Electoral systems of any kind,  whether they involve direct popular election, some sort of proportional system or our rather antiquated one, are all subject to manipulation.  That manipulation may involve simply the process which narrows and defines the choices we are allowed to make.  It may also involve “strategic campaigning,” campaigning that does not seek the greatest raw vote total but the greater likelihood of success.

Much as a football team can gain more yards but still lose the game, a Presidential candidate here in the United States can do the same.  Any coach who tried to encourage his or her team to try to gain the most yards, regardless of the number of points they scored, would quickly find that they were unemployed.  Likewise, a campaign manager who advised a Presidential candidate to try to win the most votes would run no more than one campaign.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton knew the rules under which the Presidential election was to be held and it is unimaginable that their top staff did not as well.  It was based on those rules that their strategies were developed and implemented.   Had the rules been different, both campaigns would have developed different strategies.  To suggest that Trump should not be the legitimate President because he didn’t win the popular vote is the same as suggesting that a football team didn’t legitimately win the game because they didn’t gain the most yards.

To be clear, I am not a fan of the Electoral College.   But here’s the deal:  it is in the Constitution and the only way to change it is to pass a Constitutional Amendment.  That requires an agreement between 2/3rd’s of both houses of Congress and 3/4th of state legislatures.  It is hard for me to believe that, even if Congress could agree, 38 states would approve the Amendment, since there are at least a couple of dozen states who gain a disproportionate influence in selecting a President due to the current system.

Now the states do decide how those electors are to chosen and so there may be a loophole of sorts there.  Currently both Maine and Nebraska allocate their votes differently.   In the case of those two states, a candidate who loses the popular vote statewide can still receive one Electoral vote for each Congressional District they do win.  And this has happened.  In 2008, Obama got one Electoral vote from Nebraska and, this year, Trump got one Electoral vote from Maine.  I know of no Constitutional reason that states could not allocate their vote proportionally if they so desired.  Of course, doing so could be seen as “watering down” the influence of their state in the process and candidates might be less likely to campaign in a state where there wasn’t one big prize.

In conclusion, the Electoral College, good or bad, is likely to be with us for a long time.  And, given that that is the process by which we elect a President, looking at the popular vote is simply a parlor game, like glancing at the box score of baseball game which our team lost.  It might be interesting but is otherwise meaningless.  If that outrages you, then do your best to try to change it.  I’ll support you.  But don’t hold your breath if you are hoping to take another one.

One of these days,  I’m going to put my entire audience to sleep and talk about voting systems and public choice and all those other good things I learned in Grad School.  I’ll try to wait until a slow news day.  I am still working on my 3D model of American political preference and I see that posting coming much sooner.  Again, I want to thank the many nice people who have taken the time to read this blog and, hopefully, learn something from it.  Until next time, have a great day!


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