The presidential elections of 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 were all won by the candidate who lost the popular vote. And all were Republicans. Just a coincidence? Yes, in fact, it is. Sometimes I have to reassure my students that actual conspiracies (as distinguished from various special interests doing what they can to further their own interests) are rare, despite the fact that Americans love to imagine them lurking around every corner.
In the wake of this year's election, our time would be better spent considering whether our peculiar method of choosing the president (and vice president) serves a valid current purpose? My American history class debated some of the most common arguments made in support of the electoral system (in no particular order):
- Candidates must have national, not just regional, appeal to draw popular votes from across the country. True, but with a straight popular vote that would still tend to be the case. Furthermore, a regional candidate can win. Abraham Lincoln did so in 1860 without carrying a single southern state. And a significant downside my students observed is that since candidates have to win the popular vote in at least one state to win any electoral votes (with the exception of Nebraska and Maine), the electoral system suppresses third parties and strongly favors the Democrats and Republicans.
- The electoral system makes outcomes more certain. According to this argument, since the winning electoral margin of victory is usually much larger than the popular vote margin, it looks more convincing. Are we that easily pacified? In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush 370 to 168 in the electoral count, but only 43% of the people voted for him. Was it a resounding victory or an unimpressive plurality?
- The country avoids run-offs (a second voting round involving the top two finishers from the first). My students wondered why runoffs are to be avoided. A number of other countries have them and they work quite well. The election of 1992 would have presented a perfect opportunity for a run-off between Clinton and Bush. The third party candidate drew almost 20% of the popular vote but not a single electoral vote. Run-offs would erase the claim that supporting a third party candidate is a "wasted vote."
- "Swing states" (those that sometimes tip Democratic and sometimes Republican in presidential elections) benefit from the extra attention paid to them by the candidates. True, but other states that happen to have solid Democratic or Republican majorities are ignored. How is that better?
- The electoral system protects us from voter fraud. We could see that a popular vote for president might be easier to "rig." Conspirators would only have to falsify the voting results in a single big city to potentially throw a close national election. On the other hand, this year's contest and those of 1876, 1888 and 2000 show us that the electoral system sometimes allows candidates to win who are not the choice of the majority of voters. Is that preferable?
The consensus among the students was that we can live with the electoral system, but we could do better. A state-centered, winner-take-all approach is incompatible with two fundamental elements of our political philosophy. The first is what Thomas Jefferson called "this sacred principle," majority rule. The second is "one person one vote," that each vote should carry the same weight.
We have the means to accurately count votes and to maintain the integrity of the registration and voting process. And, when results are legitimately disputed, we should not shy away from recounts. If the original numbers are confirmed, all to the good. If they are not, then we do the work necessary to improve the mechanisms we use to conduct elections and make it harder for conspiracy theorists to argue that the results are rigged.