As of this writing, Donald Trump has won 279 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 228, winning the presidency, despite being about 200,000 votes behind in the popular vote. To be sure, there are still a lot of votes to be counted and Trump could still end up “winning” the popular vote (I could quote some poll numbers here where experts estimate the odds of that, but expert pollster estimates have never seemed as useless as they do today). But a mere coincidence like that wouldn’t be enough to justify a system that no one really understands, that has long outlived its utility. Okay, yes, this is partly sour grapes (this may come as a shock, but I didn’t want Donald Trump to win), but even if the totals were reversed, I’d like to think I’d still believe in the basic justice of one person one vote.
This is almost a hack column to write, because it could’ve been written 16 years ago, or 50 (and it probably was), and it’d still be just as relevant. And yet, the Electoral College endures. The phrase “popular vote” should seem laughably redundant, yet we throw it around casually like it’s a real thing. That we’re so used to how much it sucks should not be a defense for it sucking. Most people would agree with the idea that every American’s vote should count equally, wouldn’t they? That the person with the most votes wins? That’s basic democracy, the thing we’re so fond of saying we live in, and something we’re always demanding for others when we bomb them.
Yet that’s not how it works. The largest state currently has about 70 times the population of the smallest one, though in the Electoral College, the ratio is 18.3 to 1. Which means that, in a very real sense, if you live in a larger state, your vote counts for less. And that’s to say nothing of smaller states’ equal representation in the Senate, or the arbitrary primary process that lets early contests like Iowa have an undue effect on the outcome. How many more concessions do smaller states really need?
The Electoral College was designed, in fact (yet another result of the same constitutional convention horse trading that gave us the three-fifths compromise), to be a check on pure democracy, which many of the founders feared. It was designed to prevent tyranny of the majority, and as Alexander Hamilton (he’s that guy from the rap play) explained the play in The Federalist Papers:
All these advantages will happily combine in the plan devised by the convention; which is, that the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President. […]
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.
I know I started this off saying I wasn’t going to bag on Trump in this, but I can’t imagine a more perfect illustration that a process designed to prevent “any man who is not endowed with the requisite qualifications” has failed than when a fake businessman from TV gets elected president. As the rap musical guy tells it, the Electoral College sounds like it was designed precisely to prevent candidates like Donald Trump (“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” how perfect a Trump description is that?). But this isn’t about Trump. He won according to the rules of the game as everyone understood them and there’s no changing that. Fine.
We like to pretend our constitution is sacrosanct (and certainly, it did have some good bits) but we already figured out that lots of parts of it didn’t work so great. We decided making the guy who gets the second-most presidential votes the vice president wasn’t such a hot idea in 1804, and we switched to direct election of senators (who used to be chosen by state legislatures) in 1913 (among many other things, like letting women and black people vote — 1920 and 1870, sorta). When you ask the loudest constitution lovers their favorite parts, they invariably start citing the Bill of Rights. I.e., the stuff that wasn’t in it at first that we had to add later. Which does reveal one of the best parts of the constitution, if inadvertently: we’re allowed to adapt it, to add stuff that makes good sense and do away with things that no longer work.
In any case, it seems like a pretty basic, straightforward proposition that the candidate who receives the most votes should win. Sort of like in basketball, where the team that gets the most points wins the basketball game. And yet if Hillary Clinton ends up winning the popular vote, Donald Trump would be the fifth president to receive fewer votes than his competitor (who could forget that son of a bitch Rutherford B. Hayes stealing an election he lost by 250,000 votes, ever after dubbed Rutherfraud). This would be the second time this has happened in five elections. That’s a 40% failure rate. Which seems like an incredible high tolerance for oopsies, doesn’t it? And again, this outcome seems particularly rich when the winner is a guy who kept complaining about a rigged system and made his bones promoting a conspiracy theory about the president being illegitimate. But at this point I think my irony censors are fried.
Even if the winner of the most votes happens to win this time, it will be a happy coincidence. Isn’t it time we stop allowing something this important to be decided by coincidence? There’s a lot of blame to go around for the results of this election, and my stomach already aches from all the sour grapes, but the idea that everyone’s vote for president should be counted equally, regardless of who they vote for, seems like the easiest, most non-controversial place to start. If we’re honestly trying to live up to this whole “all men are created equal” business (interpreting “men” broadly to mean “people”), then shouldn’t we start with counting all votes equally?
Update: Our president-elect even seems to agree with me here.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.