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I'm German and interested in US-American politics, but my English is not the best, so please excuse my English and explain the answer by slow degrees.

I have a question about the electoral system of the presidential election: Is the circumstance, that a candidate can win the election without the citizen-vote-majority, based on TWO REASONS? We can go that through taking the election of 2000 (Bush).

  1. reason: The number of the electors is in proportion to the population of the U.S. states (approx. 1 elector per 600.000 citizens), BUT AT LEAST 3 electors per state. Just that last-mentioned constraint (according to the ratio of distribution Alaska would have just one elector) is the first reason.

  2. reason: majority voting system/ "The winner takes it all"-principle: Since a candidate with the majority of the citizens' votes get all elector-votes, no matter how slightly the advance is, this candidate benefits from this system that has a very slight advantage (especially in big states with many electors), whereas this candidate that wins only in these states, where they gain a huge majority (approx. 100 %), are in some circumstances at a disadvantage (because all further votes after the 50% are "given away", should be better in other states to gain the majority).

Are my presumptions correct? Any more amendments? Is there a website, where are listed my two reasons and further reasons? Did, in these four elections, where the candidate won the election without having the majority of the citizens' votes, both of my two mentioned reasons play a part? But first of all, would it also last when we take the 2000 presidential election as an example.

PS: An alleged advantage of the electoral vote system is that the smaller states gain more influence. But due to the fact that the number of the electors is in proportion to the population, this advantage is not obvious for me (except for Alaska). (same in the House of Representatives election.) This advantage for the smaller states is for me only obvious in the Senate race because every state has two senators - independent from its size.


Off topic: You say in English "to vote for somebody", but without preposition in the locution "to vote Republican"? Could you please explain that with more detail?

You can also correct my English, but that's not necessary.

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    Welcome to Politics! The grammar question might be more appropriate on ELU.SE or ELL.SE, but the short form is that "Republican" is being used as an adjective, whereas a specific person is a noun. – Bobson Sep 8 '15 at 14:06
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    Another tip: The US term for “citizen-votes” is “popular vote”. The other vote being the “electoral vote”. – Relaxed Sep 8 '15 at 14:36
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    I believe you are correct. There's also a 3rd issue in some states and that's that the electorates can vote anyway they see fit regardless of the popular vote. (They won't win friends doing that, but they are allowed to do so in some states I believe). – user1530 Sep 8 '15 at 16:24
  • @blip It does not usually play any role in practice I think (I remember reading about some odd election in the 19th century when one of the candidates died before the electoral college cast their votes but nothing meaningful in recent times). – Relaxed Sep 8 '15 at 16:27
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    @blip - I think most states actually. Or even all. Even pledged delegates aren't bound. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delegate – user4012 Sep 8 '15 at 16:41
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Your reasons are more or less correct. Most states use a winner takes all system to choose electors to vote for the president. This leads to the possibility that a person can win key states by small margins and lose other states by large margins resulting in a majority of electors but minority for the total vote.

There are several different proposals for electors to be chosen/removed entirely. None of them have any real traction or wide spread support. Any changes would require an amendment to the constitution or each state to individually implement a new system to choose electors. There is unlikely to be any change as the current system is beneficial to the two major parties, and any state that attempts to change by itself becomes less valuable during the election compared to a state that is still winner take all.

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    The most likely proposal is probably this one, where all participating states agree to change their means of awarding electors to be popular-vote-winner-takes-all, regardless of how that state's people voted. It's already got more than half the states it needs to take effect. – Bobson Sep 8 '15 at 16:00
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The main reason is the winner-takes-all aspect of the system (your second reason). If you have majority vote in separate districts/constituencies, you can have many distortions, gerrymandering, etc. It's not always as visible as in the US but it does also happen to some extent in Britain, in France (in the parliamentary elections, not the presidential election in this case), etc.

Even the different weights of the states and the extra weight given to small states (your first reason) are secondary: You can still create scenarios in which someone wins without a majority of the popular vote because of the distribution of the voters.

This effect should not be entirely unfamiliar to you, as it happens much in the same way with the Erststimme in the elections to the German Bundestag. In that case it does not really matter because the Zweitstimme dominates and the representation is effectively proportional but it's the same logic.

Another example you might consider is the way the Bundesrat is elected. Without getting into the details, you can easily see that it's several times removed from the popular vote. And the composition of the Bundesrat does matter for the election of the president in Germany (who has a much smaller role than the US president, of course, so that's where the comparison ends).

Consider a Germany where the Bundestag only includes members of parliament with a Direktmandat and simply elects the chancellor and the president. Beyond all the differences, that would be enough to have a government elected by a plurality of all voters. This is the most important reason.

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The number of the electors is in proportion to the population of the U.S. states (approx. 1 elector per 600.000 citizens)

This is slightly incorrect. The number of electors per state is proportional to the number of members of Congress the state has. Each state has two Senators plus each state has at least one Representative. So the smallest state (by population; Wyoming) has three electors. Washington, DC also has three electors, although it is not a state. Wyoming has about one elector per 150,000 population.

That's why small states have an advantage, because the number of electors is not proportional to population. It's a number that is mostly proportional to population (the number of Representatives) plus two. So states with just one Representative have three electors and California with fifty-three times the population, only has fifty-five electors, about eighteen times the representation. Wyoming has less than .15% of the population but more than 2% of the electors. Collectively, the eleven single representation states have about 2% of the population and between 5% and 6% of the electors. There's a link to more information on Fairvote's Population vs. Electoral Votes page.

Also, the population for determining representation is not limited to citizens. In a remnant of the pro-slavery compromises made in the original constitution, all population counts, not just citizens (because the slave states wanted slaves to count for representation). Non-citizens can't vote but they count for apportionment and districting.

The winner-take-all system used in most states (all but Maine and Nebraska which still use a winner-take-most system) does make it easier for a different candidate to win the electoral college than the popular vote. In theory, a candidate could win 0% of the vote in states representing up to 268 votes in the electoral college and a plurality in each state representing at least 270 votes in the electoral college. But in practice, things are never that stark.

A third reason that you don't mention relates to how electors are determined by total population rather than citizens or eligible voters. Some states, particularly those on the Southern border with Mexico, have an uncommonly large number of those ineligible to vote. But their representation is still determined by total population. So they tend to vote a higher representation than their population. However, this is somewhat balanced by the weighting towards small states, since only New Mexico of the four border states can be described as a small state.

A fourth reason is plurality voting. Because there are more than two candidates in the general election, it is possible to win the popular vote with less than a majority of the votes. Essentially in four of the five elections where the electoral college winner differed from the popular vote winner, there was no majority winner of the popular vote. It was only in the fraud ridden election of 1876 where the purported majority vote winner was not elected by the electoral college.

My point being that if there were a ranked system or run-off election to choose the winner, that it's not clear that the plurality winner would have won. It's quite possible that when left with just two candidates, the plurality winner would have failed to win a majority. Or in a ranked system, that the plurality winner might have been behind some other candidate on a majority of the ballots.

  • Special note about D.C. By Constitutional Amendment, D.C. cannot have electors in excess of the smallest state by population (Wyoming, which it is larger than, but every other 3 elector state is larger than D.C., so this is not likely to come up any time soon... to say nothing about the lack of land in the D.C. proper to get that number anywhere close to 4electors) – hszmv May 31 at 18:48
  • The 1860 election was almost that stark. – Jasper May 31 at 22:20
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Did, in these four elections, where the candidate won the election without having the majority of the citizens' votes, both of my two mentioned reasons play a part?

Summary: The non-proportional distribution of electors among the states was a contributing factor in two such results. But in two others, it would not have made a difference.


A few months back (when Elizabeth Warren was talking about eliminating the electoral college), I was curious and decided to run a counterfactual: what if the electoral college votes were equal to a state's number of representatives only, rather than its number of representatives and senators? After all, House seats are apportioned approximately proportionally to the state's population (though even then it's not perfect.)

Beyond that, I assumed that all of the states would have been won by the same people. In the case of Maine & Nebraska, who apportion some of their electors by district, I removed the "at-large" electors who are determined by the overall winner of the state. In the case of Washington DC, I assumed that it would get one electoral vote, since the 23rd Amendment says that it can't have more electors than the least populous state.

The electoral vote and the popular vote have split four times in US history. (I've ignored 1824 because it was a goddamn mess.) If the electors were apportioned according to the number of representatives alone, here's what the results of these four elections would have been, with the real-life winners in italics:

  • 1876: Hayes 143, Tilden 150
  • 1888: Harrison 193, Cleveland 132
  • 2000: Bush Jr. 211, Gore 225
  • 2016: Trump 246, H. Clinton 190

In other words, if the electoral college was apportioned among the states more proportionately, there would have only been two elections in US history where the popular vote and the electoral vote split, rather than four. So we cannot say that a "fairer" distribution of electoral votes among the states would have fixed this problem on its own.

I haven't run the similar analysis for what would have happened in the case where all states split their electoral votes according to the proportion of the vote in each state. I strongly suspect, though, that this would have lead to the winner of the popular vote also winning the electoral college in all four of these elections. If true, this would mean that the "winner-take-all" nature of the electoral college is much more culpable in producing such results.

  • Re: Last Paragraph, actually, splitting vote by proportion of each state cut's against Hillary far worse than Trump in 2016 (don't know about the rest) as there are only five states with 4 or more states that universally voted for one candidate across all districts (Of which, 3 went to Hilary anyway.). Having looked at voting maps, the only way Hilary wins the election is by National Popular vote, At the State, County, and Congressional level Trump beats Hilary more and more across the map. – hszmv May 31 at 18:55
  • @hszmv: What I had in the back of my mind was a more directly proportional system: one under which if (say) 60% of the vote in CA is for Candidate A, then Candidate A gets 60% of CA's electors. I suspect that the electoral college would be more likely to reflect the popular vote then. If the electors were assigned by congressional district, you're probably right that the 2016 results would have been the same; if nothing else, you'd expect the effects of congressional gerrymandering to manifest themselves in the electoral college as well. – Michael Seifert May 31 at 21:17
  • Well, the only reason I would doubt the Gerrymander claim to some degree is that a look at the voting results by county in 2016 also deals a handy win to Trump. Not doubting that Gerrymandering is a thing, as a look at my own state shows that there was only a 3 county difference in Hilary's victory in my state when Compared to the Republican Governor's election in the 2014 cycle. – hszmv Jun 3 at 13:36
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There is a third reason:

3. The electors can vote for someone whom their citizen-voters did not intend them to elect President.

This actually happened in the 1800 election: All of the Democratic electors cheated by voting for both Jefferson and Burr as President, so Burr came close to becoming President. This action had multiple consequences, including a Constitutional Amendment. Jefferson eventually put Burr on trial for treason (on unrelated grounds).

This freedom also complicated the 2000 and 2016 elections. Al Gore did not get all of the votes of either jurisdiction where he lived. And in 2016, some electors tried to turn the Electoral College into a deliberative institution, so Colin Powell came in third.

Here are three more possibilities:

4. Some states can have a higher percentage of the population eligible to vote than others.

Demographics and voting eligibility rules vary between states. Voting eligibility rules used to vary a lot between states. There have been four Constitutional Amendments to reduce this variability.

5. Voter turn-out rates can vary between states.

6. Congress can refuse to accept alleged results from state(s).

During the 1876 election, the results of three states were disputed.

Michael Seifert mentioned a seventh reason:

7. The tie-breakers for the Presidential election and the Vice-Presidential election are rather different from the Electoral College process, and from each other.

These tie-breakers came into play in 1800 and 1824.

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