When I went to bed shortly after midnight on Election Day, the trend map showed a repeat of 2016—the Democrats winning the popular vote but the Republicans once again benefiting from the Electoral College.
Cut to this morning and checking the map again, and three of the states that were red when I went to bed had flipped to blue, and the trend showed Biden with exactly the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College. As of right now, seven states have not yet been called; Trump has a lead in four of them, and the remaining three have razor-thin margins that are still way too close to call.
So, what is this Electoral College thing anyway, and why does the popular vote for President not determine who ultimately gets to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.?
The Electoral College
The United States is one of the most, if not the most, diverse countries in the world in terms of cultural, ideological, and racial make-up. We owe that to the immigrant heritage that both formed and continues to build it. America has often been called the “great melting pot,” but in reality a better image is one of a “tossed salad”. While being American, citizens still maintain their unique cultural and ideological values. The west coast of California, Oregon, and Washington, the northeast New England states, and the hard-industrial union labor centers of Wisconsin and Michigan are usually solidly Democrat and liberal in their voting habits and ideology, while the southeast and central part of the country (the latter of which is the nation’s “breadbasket” and provides nearly all of our domestic food, textile, and petroleum-based production that powers and feeds the country) holds an ideology that is distinctively conservative and thus votes Republican.
Where people live in America, however, doesn’t match the contribution made by the various parts of our country. The four most populous states—California, New York, Texas, and Florida—lie on the outer fringes of our geography and contribute a disproportionately lower amount to the overall hard production economy; but, if the popular vote were allowed to dictate the outcome of the presidency, those four states alone out of the fifty that exist in America would have total control over its course, including that of those central states that, while providing nearly all of our domestic production, would have no say in how the country is run.
That is why we have the Electoral College.
The Electoral College was written into the United States Constitution in Article II, Section 1, which provides that each state is to choose a group of electors in whatever manner each state sees fit to cast the ultimate votes for President and Vice President of the United States, each state providing the same number of electors as it has members of the House of Representatives and Senate, which in turn are apportioned according to the population counts at each ten-year Census. So the most populous state, California, has 55 (the most), while the least-populous states are guaranteed at least three. These electors are bound by oath to vote according to the result of that state’s popular vote. In all but two states, the winner of the popular vote is entitled to the votes of all the electors of that state; the remaining two states apportion the votes of their electors in the same ratio as their popular vote result. They cast their votes a few weeks after the General Election, which ultimately select the President and Vice President, and the candidate with 270 or more votes (a majority) wins the office. If no candidate gets a majority, the House of Representatives determines by its vote who wins the office; however, because America has been essentially a two-party system for most of its modern history, the only times the House has had to step in were in 1800 (Thomas Jefferson’s first term) and 1824 (John Quincy Adams). In one instance, the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the Supreme Court’s decision to end late vote counting ultimately decided the contest.
A comparison of the population of each state as of the 2020 Census versus its electoral college votes illustrates why the system was put in place to begin with. Without the Electoral College, the top ten most populous states hold over 50% of the popular vote (51.75%) and would set the direction of the entire country, even though in terms of geography and their contribution to the national economy they aren’t even close; but they just hold 44.8% of the total number of electors. To get to 50% in the Electoral College, the set of influencing states expands from 10 to 14.
So, the Electoral College being written into the Constitution principally does two things: first, to make it more difficult for states with disproportionately large populations (i.e., California and New York, which are overwhelmingly liberal) to dictate the course for the entire rest of the country (which is generally conservative) given its wide range of diversity and the smaller, less populous states’ greater contribution to the overall national product, and secondly (and more importantly), to ensure that an election produces a definite result that can be quickly determined rather than drawn out for days, weeks, or even months by endless legal challenges to the popular vote process.
Because of the way this system is set up and the fact that for all but two states it is designed as a “winner take all” result when it comes to electors, there have been five elections in which a candidate has become President as a result of the Electoral College in spite of not winning the popular vote.
John Quincy Adams in 1824 (there were five parties in that election so none of them got the majority of votes, so the House had to vote).
Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.
Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
George W. Bush in 2000 (the one that ultimately was decided by the Supreme Court).
Donald J. Trump in 2016.
Interestingly, all of them were Republicans benefiting from the Electoral College over their Democratic opponents, with the exception of Adams (because there was only one major political party at the time, called the Democrat-Republicans; in fact, the Democratic Party was created as a split from the Democratic-Republican Party by Andrew Jackson as a direct result of the 1824 election, in which he received the most votes of the five candidates but J. Q. Adams ended up President after the House of Representatives chimed in).
District of Columbia