Electoral College Reform

by Paul R. Hollrah

As New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s (almost) like déjà vu all over again.”  According to initial reports on the outcome of the 2016 General Election, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoyed a 390,048 vote advantage in the national popular vote, while her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, enjoyed a decisive 306 to 232 majority in the U.S. Electoral College.  Had those been the final tallies we would have been confronted with a result almost identical to the 2000 fiasco in which Democrat Al Gore enjoyed a 543,900 vote plurality in the national popular vote, while George W. Bush won a slim 271 to 266 vote majority in the Electoral College.  In that election, out of a total national popular vote of 101,455,900, Gore won a razor-thin popular vote majority… 50,999,900 votes (50.26%) to Bush’s 50,456,000 (49.74%).

In the present case, out of 125, 249, 976 votes cast, Donald Trump won a thin popular vote plurality: 62, 972,225 (50.27%) to 62,277,750 (49.73%) for Clinton.  In the 2000 presidential election, a switch of just 271,951 votes would have given Bush a narrow popular vote victory, along with a 271 to 266 vote victory in the Electoral College.  In 2016, a switch of just one vote out of each 361 votes cast would have given Clinton a razor-thin plurality in the national popular vote, her shortfall almost identical to that of George Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000.

The 2000 Bush-Cheney victory in the Electoral College caused liberals, Democrats, and some moderate Republicans to search for ways in which to bypass the Electoral College.  In response, and with the active support of Republicans such as former Illinois congressman John Anderson, they’ve created an organization called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).

The NPVIC actively seeks support among the legislatures of the various states in support of a rule requiring that all of their state’s electoral votes be cast for the candidates for president and vice president who receive a majority of the national popular vote… regardless of the popular vote count in each of the Compact states.  The closeness of the national popular vote in 2016 is certain to reinvigorate the NPVIC campaign, but do they really know what they’re doing?  Are they aware of the potential unintended consequences if they are successful?

California’s commitment to the NPVIC on August 8, 2011 brought 131 of the needed 270

electoral votes under the popular vote umbrella.  If and when states representing at least 270 electoral votes have joined the Compact, then and only then will those states be able to eliminate any possibility of ever again electing a president and vice president with less than a majority of the national popular vote.

If the supporters of the NPVIC would do their homework, they would understand that, had the NPVIC rule been in effect in 2000, in every blue state in the nation, and if Bush-Cheney had been able to attract just one additional vote out of every 373 votes cast, eking out a narrow victory in the national popular vote, the states of the NPVIC would have been required to cast all 270 of their electoral votes for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, in spite of the fact that 21 of the 22 states in the Compact would have cast a majority of their popular votes for Al Gore.

Combined with the 267 electoral votes that Bush-Cheney won in the 29 non-NPVIC states, the Electoral College vote would have been a unanimous 537-0 victory for Bush-Cheney.  In other words, the proponents of the national popular vote would have insured a unanimous Electoral College vote for Bush-Cheney, a result that the Framers never envisioned and the exact opposite of what the NPVIC supporters hoped to accomplish.  The same is true for the 2016 results.

If supporters of the NPVIC are truly interested in Electoral College reform that is more democratic and closer to the will of the people than the winner-take-all system now utilized by 48 states and Washington, DC, they might want to consider adopting the allocation system now used by the states of Maine and Nebraska.  Under that system, the winner of the statewide popular vote receives both of the state’s two at-large electoral votes.  The remaining electoral votes are allocated based on the winner of the popular vote in each of the state’s congressional districts.  A comparative analysis of the 2016 Electoral College outcome shows the following:

Winner,                          Electoral Votes                                                                                        

Electoral      Popular         Winner-Take-All   Maine-Nebraska     Difference            

      State             Votes          Vote               HRC     DJT          HRC     DJT        HRC     DJT

          

Alabama               9            Trump                  0         9                  1         8              +1      -1

Alaska                   3            Trump                  0          3                 0         3                 0       0

Arizona               11            Trump                  0        11                 4         7               +4      -4

Arkansas               6            Trump                  0          6                 0         6                 0       0

California           55            Clinton               55         0               41       14             -14   +14

Colorado               9            Clinton                 9         0                 5         4                -4     +4

Connecticut          7            Clinton                 7         0                 7         0                 0        0

Delaware               3            Clinton                 3         0                 3         0                 0        0

D.C.                       3           Clinton.                3         0                 3         0                 0            0

Florida                29          Trump                  0        29              11       18             +11     -11

Georgia               16           Trump                  0        16                 4       12               +4       -4

Hawaii                  4           Clinton                 4         0                 4         0                 0            0

Idaho                      4           Trump                  0         4                 0         4                 0            0

Illinois                 20           Clinton               20         0               12         8                -8      +8

Indiana                 11           Trump                  0        11                 1       10               +1       -1

Iowa                       6           Trump                  0         6                 1         5               +1       -1

Kansas                   6           Trump                  0          6                 1         5               +1       -1

Kentucky               8           Trump                  0         8                 1        7               +1       -1

Louisiana               8           Trump                  0         8                 1        7              +1       -1

Maine                     4           Clinton                 3         1                 3         1                 0            0

Maryland             10           Clinton               10         0                 9         1                -1      +1

Massachusetts      11           Clinton               11          0               11         0                 0            0

Michigan             16           Trump                  0        16                 5       11               +5       -5

Minnesota            10           Clinton               10         0                 7         3                -3      +3

Mississippi            6           Trump                  0         6                 1        5               +1       -1

Missouri               10           Trump                  0        10                 2         8               +2       -2

Montana                 3           Trump                  0         3                 0         3                 0            0

Nebraska                5           Trump                  0          5                 0         5                 0            0

Nevada                   6           Clinton                 6         0                 5         1                -1      +1

New Hampshire     4           Clinton                 4         0                 4        0                 0            0

New Jersey          14           Clinton               14         0                 9         5                -5      +5

New Mexico          5           Clinton                 5         0                 4        1                -1      +1

New York           29           Clinton               29         0               20         9                -9      +9

North Carolina     15           Trump                  0        15                 3       12               +3       -3

North Dakota         3           Trump                  0         3                 0         3                 0            0

Ohio                     18           Trump                  0        18                 4       14               +4       -4

Oklahoma              7           Trump                  0         7                 0         7                 0            0

Oregon                               7           Clinton                 7         0                 6         1                -1      +1

Pennsylvania       20           Trump                  0        20                 5       15               +5     -15

Rhode Island          4           Clinton                 4         0                 4         0                  0            0

South Carolina       9           Trump                  0          9                 1         8                +1            -1

South Dakota         3           Trump                  0         3                 0         3                  0            0

Tennessee            11           Trump                  0        11                 2        9                +2            -2

Texas                   38           Trump                  0        38               11       27               +11     -11

Utah                       6           Trump                  0         6                 0         6                   0             0

Vermont                 3           Clinton                 3         0                 3         0                  0        0

Virginia               13           Clinton               13         0                 7         6                  -7            +7

Washington         12           Clinton               12         0                 8         4                  -4            +4

West Virginia        5           Trump                  0         5                 0         5                    0               0

Wisconsin            10           Trump                  0        10                 3         7                  +3             -3

Wyoming               3           Trump                  0          3                 0         3                    0         0

232      306             237      301

 

Under the winner-take-all system in 2016, essentially all of the campaigning took place in twelve states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  However, had all states used the Maine-Nebraska system, that intensity would have spread to six additional states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington… four of the six being among our most populous states.

Under the Maine-Nebraska system, Clinton would have gained electoral votes in nineteen states and lost votes in twelve states.  Under the winner-take-all system, Trump shut out Clinton in thirty states, while Clinton shut out Trump in nineteen states and the District of Columbia.  Under the Maine-Nebraska system, Trump would have shut out Clinton in only eleven states, while Clinton would have shut out Trump in just eight states.  In short, the Maine-Nebraska system would have the salutary effect of bringing political decisions closer to the people

But the most telling aspect of the analysis is provided by a comparison with the U.S. map on which each of the 3,100 counties are colored in either red or blue.  When viewing the map one might question how the map can be almost entirely red, while the distribution of the popular vote and the electoral vote, state by state, is relatively equal.  The answer lies in the occasional splotch of blue on the county-by-county map, indicating the popular vote in major population centers where the Democratic vote is often greater than 90 percent, and the rural and suburban areas where the partisan vote split is relatively equal… generally within the 45-55 percent range.

Electoral College critics would be well advised to do a bit more research into what could be the unintended consequence of scuttling the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote.  While it is understandable that they would see unfairness in presidential elections in which the candidates receiving a plurality of the national popular vote could lose the election in the Electoral College, they will be far more upset if, after convincing state legislatures to adopt the NPVIC formula, they find that their efforts have produced unanimous 538 to 0 votes in the Electoral College for candidates who came in second in the popular vote.  Clearly, this is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they established the Electoral College.
| November 12, 2016

Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College.  He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.

 

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