Another View: The Electoral College versus the popular vote

The election is over and every attempt to deny President-Elect Trump his victory through recounts and hoping state Electors would refuse to re-allocate their votes has failed. For the second time in sixteen years, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote lost the Electoral College vote, and many are once again calling for the elimination of the Electoral College to determine who wins the presidency. In the weeks after the election, as Hillary Clinton's lead continued to grow wider, I found my original preference and rationale for the Electoral College getting shakier by the day. After all, how can someone get almost 2,900,000 more votes than the opponent and still officially lose an election? Many people could legitimately say that each state's voice is already expressed through its Congressional delegation and that the national vote for President should be based purely on majority rule, that one person gets one vote.

I have supported the principle of the Electoral College system because we are a Republic with checks and balances built in to protect minority rights and prevent mob rule. We are the fifty unique and diverse United States and as a representative democracy, candidates should seek to build coalitions and give as much attention to the rural, agricultural, industrial and suburban populations as they would to the larger states and urban centers where the majority of Americans live. The voices and the specific interests and cultures of more sparsely populated states and regions should be recognized and it does say a lot that Donald Trump won 32 out of the 50 states. Despite the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton is leading in the popular vote, 64 percent     of the states preferred Donald Trump for President. However, when one candidate wins almost 2,900,000 more votes than her opponent ...

Ultimately, there will be either an Electoral College vote or a popular vote, and I welcome a vigorous debate. However, rather than arguing over the systems that currently exist, I would want that debate to be based on the very best possible versions of both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

The Best Version of the Popular Vote

So then, what's the best possible version of the popular vote? I had two criteria for choosing, the first that it should be easy to both understand and to implement. Second and incredibly important, the final tally should NOT be determined by a simple plurality. Such a system would make it possible for a party with far less than 50 percent of the overall vote to still win the entire contest, due to no other party being anywhere close to them in terms of ideology. In such a scenario, other parties with relatively similar political philosophies and policy preferences as those of the general population might not agree upon a candidate to represent their broader coalition, making way for more extreme parties with fanatical bases to control the final outcome by a small plurality rather than by a strong majority.

Therefore, I suggest that any popular vote method should not be complete until one candidate has over 50 percent of the vote.

There have been many suggested alternatives that have merit, but my favorite (with a tiny bit of my own tweaking) is the Ranked Choice: Each voter ranks their top five candidates in order of preference, with write-ins allowed to be ranked among those five choices. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes on the initial count, then whichever candidate got the least amount of first-choice votes is eliminated. Ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are then added to their next highest-ranked choice (To be clear, no one gets to vote more than once; voters' ballots are merely re-ranked if their preferred candidate is eliminated). This process of elimination continues until one of the candidates finally crosses the 50 percent threshold and wins the presidency. However, if enough voters refuse to list any of the major-party candidates as one of their top five choices, thereby preventing the highest first-choice winner from achieving a majority, then responsibility would be turned over to the Legislature, as outlined in the Constitution.

We now have the technology necessary to implement such a system. Without computers, recounts might take months. Now, if there were a uniform set of voting machines with transparent open source software and several built-in safeguards to defend against hacking or other forms of manipulation or corruption, the final results could be arrived at quickly.

Incidentally, the state of Maine recently decided to implement a Ranked-Choice system.

Reforming the Electoral College System

The Electoral College system we have now is seriously flawed. The winner-take- all formula for Electoral College votes is simply an inaccurate and unfair reflection of how individuals in each state voted. Often, candidates will not even bother to campaign in a state they are sure that they will lose or win, instead focusing most of their attention on a few swing states, possibly leading to even more disengaged voters. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the way it is set up now, a voter in a small state has disproportionate influence on the outcome compared to a voter in a large state. For example, 255,849 votes cast in Wyoming got 3 Electoral College votes, or 85,283 people for each vote. 12,786,602 votes cast in California got 55 Electoral College votes, or 232,484 people for each vote.

Essentially, that means that a Wyoming voter has almost three times the influence that a California voter has.

Numerous proposals have been made to reform the Electoral College using Proportional Allocation ("Candidate X's Votes" divided by "Total Number of Votes Cast" multiplied by "Number of Electoral College Votes in that State") but the main criticism of this method is that it becomes nothing more than a direct imitation of the popular vote. I have studied several variations on this idea, including rounding off to the third decimal or multiplying the number of Electoral College votes in each state by 10, and I have found all these variations wanting, either because they are too complex or because they fail to declare a clear winner.

Instead, utilizing in all fifty states the Ranked Choice system described above in relation to the popular vote system, I propose a whole-number method using four simple but significant mathematical tweaks guaranteeing that each state can decide its winner while better reflecting the popular choices of the individuals within that state. It might not seem like perfect equality, but it does allow each state to choose a winner without completely disregarding the votes of the opposition.

1. Limit the number of Electoral College Votes to the number of Congressional Districts in each state, eliminating the two additional votes that represent senators. Subtract two Electoral College votes from each state as well as the District of Columbia, leaving a total of 436 electors (with 219 needed for victory).

2. The candidate with the most votes should be allocated a proportional percentage of that state's Electoral College votes rounded UP to the next whole number, no matter how low that post-decimal point may be (i.e., 5.3 becomes 6.0).

3. Second place and lower-place candidates should be allocated a proportional percentage of that state's Electoral College votes rounded DOWN to the whole number immediately beneath it, no matter how high that post-decimal point may be (i.e., 3.8 becomes 3.0).

4. Any leftover Electoral College votes from that state go to the first-place candidate (the spoils go to the victor).

Rounding up and down might cause some to feel enraged if, say, their preferred candidate sees their 2.99 Electoral College votes get rounded down to 2 because they are on the losing side, or seeing the opposing candidate's 3.01 getting rounded up to 4 if they are on the winning side. Nevertheless, this process is desirable. Using whole numbers ("One man, one vote"), creates an outcome in which a clear victor emerges in each state when one candidate wins more popular votes than other candidates. There can be no ties when one candidate gets more popular votes than the others. This process guarantees a winner in each state.

Rounding down may have the effect of having leftover Electoral College votes after the calculation. (For example, in California, because Clinton has the most votes, her 33.76 proportionally-calculated Electoral College votes becomes 34, Trump's 17.71 becomes 17, Johnson's 1.85 becomes 1, and Stein's 0.9958 becomes 0. In this new system, California has 53 Electoral College votes, but 34 + 17 + 1 + 0 = 52 with 1 left over. Clinton gets the leftover 1, bringing her total to 35). Why automatically give any leftover Electoral College votes to the first- place candidate?

The idea of this formula is to mitigate the destructive imbalance of the winner-take- all system while recognizing the legitimacy of the popular vote winner in each state. The candidate who wins the popular vote gets this bonus; the spoils go to the victor.

With the potential rise of third-party candidates, it may become increasingly difficult for the first-place candidate to achieve the full 219 Electoral College votes currently required for victory. In such a situation, the Ranked Choice voting system described previously would go into effect, with the ballots of the eliminated candidate(s) being re-ranked specifically and only in those states where they won Electoral College votes. Such a redistribution of votes based on those ballots' second-choice could potentially affect which candidate ultimately wins within those states. Once again, if after all but two candidates had been eliminated and no one had won at least 219 Electoral College votes, responsibility of selection would go to the Legislature, as outlined in the Constitution.

If such a system had been in place throughout the country for the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have won 219 Electoral College votes, Donald Trump would have won 214, Gary Johnson would have won 2, Jill Stein would have won 1, and Evan McMullin would have zero (See the accompanying chart). If Clinton had gotten less than 219, the re-ranking of preferences on Johnson and Stein's ballots in California and Texas would have been the deciding factor.

Contrary to what one might assume, if this system had been in place in 2000 (with 218 needed to win), George W. Bush's Electoral College vote total would have been 219, Al Gore's would have been 214, and Ralph Nader's would have been 2. Florida's incredibly narrow vote difference would not have made the difference between one candidate receiving 23 Electoral College votes and the other none; instead Bush would have received 12 and Gore 11.

Although I do not know if the federal government even has such power, I would hope to see legislation enacted requiring all states to comply with this method in federal elections, because such a system would only work if adopted in all 50 states. It is possible that very partisan states that tend to have power concentrated in one political party would be reluctant to surrender their winner-take- all option. Why would consistently Democratic California or Republican Texas wish to lose even a single one of their respective 55 and 38 Electoral College votes? Also, why would Wyoming or the District of Columbia wish to see their 3 Electoral College votes reduced to 1? They might not but it would be a fair-minded approach. In fact, as far as Electoral College systems go, I believe the one I've suggested is the best one to be included in a grand debate against the idea of a Popular Vote.

So Which Option?

In most cases, writers advocate for what they consider to be the very best option. But I'm still on the fence; unless convinced otherwise, I could be happy with either of the two methods I've suggested here. I believe there is more than one right and fair way to elect a President and, at the same time, I don't believe any one version is perfect. These seem to be the two best variations for our systems of voting in the United States, so I welcome a grand debate pitting my whole-number rounded variation of the Electoral College system against the Instant Run-off version of the popular vote.

Scott Aronowitz can be contacted at


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