In a presidential election, the popular vote simply means an aggregate of all voters from all states in America. The candidate who gets the most votes nationwide is said to have won the popular vote. But the winner of the popular vote may end up losing the election, like Al Gore did in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won 48% of the popular vote but only 38% of the electoral vote.
This is because although Americans vote directly for their chosen candidate in the presidential election every 4 years, the president is elected by the institution called the Electoral College. This article explains the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote, i.e., how the Electoral College system works.
The Electoral College
There are 538 total electors in the Electoral College, who are chosen by each state of the United States and by the District of Columbia (but not by other territories like Puerto Rico). The number of electors for a state is based upon the voting membership of that state in Congress i.e. the number of representatives in the House plus the number of senators. There are a total of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators in Congress; so along with 3 electors from the District of Columbia that brings the total number of electors to 538. A presidential candidate needs 270 (just over 50%) electoral votes to win.
Here is a list of the number of electoral votes for each state:
How Electoral Votes are Awarded
In all states except Nebraska and Maine, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. This means all electors/delegates in a state are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in that state. So in a closely contested election like 2000 (Bush v. Gore), when George Bush won Florida with a roughly 50-50% split of the popular vote in that state, he won all 27 electoral votes for Florida.
Maine and Nebraska use a slightly different method for allocating electoral votes. In the "Congressional District Method", one elector within each congressional district is selected by popular vote in that district. The remaining two electors (representing the 2 U.S. Senate seats) are selected by the statewide popular vote. This method has been used in Nebraska since 1996 and in Maine since 1972.
Disadvantages of the Electoral College
Critics of the system that uses the electoral vote to choose a president argue that the system is unfair. They say that the system is undemocratic because the number of electoral votes is not directly proportional to the population of the state. This gives smaller states a disproportionate influence in presidential elections. For example, Hawaii has a population of only 1.36 million but has 4 electoral votes while Oregon has a population 3 times that size (3.8 million) but only 7 electoral votes. If the power of a single vote were calculated in terms of number of number of people per electoral vote, states like New York (519,000 people per electoral vote) and California (508,000 people per electoral vote) would lose. The winners would be states like Wyoming (143,000 people per electoral vote) and North Dakota (174,000 people per electoral vote).
Another criticism is that the electoral vote system does not penalize a state for low voter turnout or for disenfranchising its citizens (such as convicted felons, or, historically, slaves and women) The state gets the same number of votes regardless of whether voter turnout is 40% or 60%. In a popular vote, states with higher turnout will directly increase their influence in the outcome of the presidential race.
Yet another criticism is that it discourages voters in states where one party holds a substantial majority i.e. Republicans in typically blue states like California or Democrats in red states like Texas. Since electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, even a significant minority of contrarian votes will not make any impact on the outcome of the election. On the other hand, if a popular vote were to be used then every single vote has an impact.
Advantages of the Electoral Vote over a Popular Vote
Supporters of using the electoral vote argue that it protects the rights of smaller states and is a cornerstone of American federalism. States can design their own mechanism -- without federal involvement -- for choosing their electors.
Another advantage is that the impact of any state-level problems, such as fraud, is localized. No political party can commit large-scale fraud in any one state to dramatically influence an election.
It should be noted that the Electoral College merely follows from state influence in Congress, which enacts laws and acts as an inherent checks-and-balances mechanism for the president's administration. That is to say representation for various states in Congress is also not directly proportional to their population.
Different Winners of Electoral and Popular Vote
The biggest criticism of the electoral vote system is that it is possible for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. That is, more Americans voted for the candidate but he or she still lost. While this is rare, it has happened 4 times:
- George Bush (electoral vote winner) vs. Al Gore in 2000: Al Gore won the popular vote by 543,816 votes
- Benjamin Harrison (electoral vote winner) vs. Grover Cleveland in 1888
- Rutherford B. Hayes (winner) vs. Samuel J. Tilden in 1876: Tiden won the popular vote by 264,292 votes
- John Quincy Adams won the electoral vote in 1824 but lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson by 44,804 votes in 1824
Popular Support for the Electoral College
A Gallup poll in January 2013 found that a vast majority of Americans would prefer to do away with the electoral college for presidential elections.
Implications of a Popular Vote Election
It would be wrong to assume that Hillary Clinton or Al Gore would have been president had the electoral college been abolished and elections were to be decided by popular vote. Indeed, Donald Trump has said he supports a popular vote election for president, and has reiterated this view even after winning the electoral college vote and losing the popular vote.
As Aaron Blake argued when he wrote for the Washington Post, the electoral college forces candidates to structure their campaign in a specific way; they focus on about a dozen "purple" or swing states — such as Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire. Republicans waste no resources campaigning in decidedly blue states like Washington, Oregon and California, while Democrats avoid campaigning in red states like Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma.
If elections were decided by popular vote, campaign strategies would be very different. If Trump had campaigned more effectively in California, for example, his popular vote deficit in that state would possibly not have been as large as it was. Clinton got 4.3 million more votes than Trump in California. In other words, if the state of California were excluded, Trump would win the popular vote by 1.5 million votes. Supporters of the electoral college system say that this was exactly the kind of scenario—i.e., one large state overriding the wishes of other states—that the current system was designed to handle.
Bias in favor of Republicans
As things stand now, the practical effect of the electoral college is that Republicans have an advantage over Democrats. Running an analysis of the electoral system, complete with simulations for various voting outcomes, the Economist magazine found that
for Democrats to have a better than 50% chance of winning control of the House in November’s mid-term elections, they will need to win the popular vote by around seven percentage points. To put that another way, we think the Republicans have a 0.01% chance of winning the popular vote for the House. But we estimate their chance of securing a majority of congressmen is about a third.
The bias results from current political trends; when the system was designed over 200 years ago the situation was quite different. Every state gets only two senators, no matter how populous. The populous states happen to have large urban populations that tend to be more Democratic-leaning. So in the political atmosphere that we find ourselves in today, Democrats are at a disadvantage. Another 100 years from now, the situation may well be reversed.
- The Electoral College - Wikipedia
- wikipedia:List of U.S. states and territories by population
- Would people in the USA prefer to elect their President via direct elections? - Quora
- How powerful is your vote? - Slate
- Trump lost the popular vote. That doesn’t mean he would have lost a popular-vote election. - The Washington Post
- America’s electoral system gives the Republicans advantages over Democrats - The Economist
- American democracy’s built-in bias towards rural Republicans - The Economist