Clinton won popular vote, but Trump won election because electoral system doesn't treat each vote equally
William Howell: Trump decried political system as "rigged," but the system that distorts vote delivered him presidency
Editor’s Note: William Howell is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author, with Terry Moe, of “Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—And Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
For the past year, Donald Trump has billed himself as a populist insurgent who would, at long last, take the fight to a political system that was designed to subvert the will of the people. On Election Day, however, Trump lost the popular vote.
As of Friday, Hillary Clinton was ahead in the popular vote with 63.4 million to Trump’s 61.2.
Due to the Electoral College, however, Trump, not Clinton, will assume the presidency.
How is this possible? Here, things get a little tricky. This is because technically we do not vote directly for the President. Rather, each of us selects state electors who, in turn, choose the next President. Nearly always, electors follow the will of the people (more on this below). Hence, the differences we observe between electoral and popular votes have less to do with obdurate electors and more to do with the ways in which electoral votes are assigned and counted.
To be sure, the number of electors — generally selected by party officials and assigned to each state — crucially depends upon its population. But by setting a minimum on the number of electors who represent each state, no matter how small, and then by awarding a state’s electoral votes to a candidate on a winner-take-all basis (Maine and Nebraska excepted), the results of the Electoral College vote may deviate rather substantially from the popular vote.
Usually this happens because the winning margin of the popular vote in a state gets exaggerated in the final count of the Electoral College. Reasonably narrow wins in a handful of key states, after all, can translate into massive differences in the Electoral College vote count.
This week, however, something a good deal more consequential happened: The winning candidate in a presidential election lost the popular vote. To be sure, it wasn’t the first time. Just 16 years ago, George W. Bush lost the popular vote but squeezed out an Electoral College victory.
Never before, though, has the Electoral College come to the rescue of a candidate who made it a central theme of his campaign that our politics are not only broken but corrupt. Never before have the distortionary effects of the Electoral College benefited a candidate who railed against an electoral system that, in his view, ignores the will of the people.
Again and again this past campaign, Donald Trump decried a political system that was “rigged.” In the end, though, it was the Electoral College — our nation’s most enduring electoral institution that reliably distorts popular representation — that delivered him the presidency.
If that doesn’t do enough to satisfy your taste for irony, notice that Trump won the election by rallying the support of less educated and less informed citizens, the very people whose views the Electoral College was meant to keep in check. Our nation’s founders were notoriously distrustful of the capacity of average citizens to govern, and so into our political system they built all sorts of hedges against perceived excesses of popular governance: staggered elections, separation of powers, and the Electoral College itself.
Under its original design, members of the Electoral College were permitted to deviate from the expressed wishes of those citizens who selected them. And over the first half of the nation’s history, hundreds did so. But no longer. In the last century, the Electoral College has remained a purely accounting scheme, a way of tallying votes and choosing a winner. It is not a corrective for perceived ignorance.
In different times, there is some chance that members of the Electoral College might have deviated from state returns and brought the popular vote into alignment with the electoral vote. Those times, though, are long gone. Meanwhile, though, we continue to live with an electoral system that decidedly does not treat each vote equally, with consequences not only for how candidates run their campaigns, but for who eventually wins.
And so Trump will be our next president. I’m curious to see if his fight against the distortions of representative democracy will now include any correctives to the very Electoral College that saved him.
Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this story misstated the proportion of the popular vote cast for candidates in the presidential election. No candidate received more than 50% of the vote.