Archived Opinion

Once again, Electoral College plays controversial role

Once again, Electoral College plays controversial role

We are a democratic republic, not a pure democracy. I was reminded of that in a most unusual way at a most unusual place.

My wife Lori and I were descending the 15,355-foot-high Condor Pass in the Peruvian Andes on Wednesday, Nov. 9, when I turned to Bram — an engineer from Belgium who was part of our group and also happened to have an international phone plan — and told him I couldn’t hold out any longer.

“Who won?” I asked.

He pulled out his phone and stared at it as he pushed icons on the screen and tapped in the question.

“No coverage yet, Scott.”

A few hours later we stopped for a break — closer to civilization than we had been for two days — and it was Bram who brought it up the second time.

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“So who wants to know who won the U.S. election?”

Several in our group said no, they could wait. I couldn’t.

“Trump won,” Bram said, “but apparently he got fewer votes. How does that work?”

We voted for Clinton and got Trump. And so for the second time in 16 years, the winner of the popular vote won’t get a stint in the White House thanks to the Electoral College. As I write this — with millions of votes still to count around the nation — the tally stands at 60,910,473 votes for Donald Trump and 61,867,572 for Hillary Clinton. Most of those uncounted votes are in states that have already been put in Clinton’s column, so there’s no way the election result changes.

Unless the electors do what they’ve never done before — not vote according to their party’s wishes. Not likely, but in fact it’s the Electoral College system that’s in the Constitution, not the directive to vote for the popular vote winner in the state the electors represent. 

Look, many are once again raising a ruckus about our Electoral College system, the same system that sent George W. Bush to the White House in 2000 after Al Gore won the popular vote. This election will mark the fifth time this has happened in our country’s history, so twice in the last 16 years has got some saying the system needs to change. 

But there’s little chance that will happen. It would take a Constitutional Amendment to do away with the Electoral College system, and there’s almost zero chance the nation’s small states would go for it. However, there might be another way (more on that later).

Here’s the way the current system works, in a nutshell. Each state is assigned a number of electors based on their representation in Congress. States with small populations like Wyoming get three electors because it has two senators and one representative, while California has 55 electors. In almost all cases, you win a state by one vote, you get all its electoral votes; you win a state by millions of votes, you get the same number of electoral votes as if you had won by one vote. 

So, in this case, Clinton won by big margins and millions of votes in the typically liberal states like New York and California but lost by much smaller margins in swing states like North Carolina and Ohio. So she gets more votes, but Trump wins the Electoral College tally and the presidency.

Here’s the rub on the system: each of the three electoral votes in Wyoming — with a population of 584,153 — accounts for 194,717 voters. California has 38,800,000 people, so each of its 55 electoral votes represents 705,454 voters. Do the math, and each electoral vote in Wyoming is worth 3.6 times more than each electoral vote in California.

The electors aren’t Constitutionally committed to vote for the candidate that wins the popular vote in their state, but since they are chosen by party leadership they almost always do, and never have enough broke rank to change the outcome of the election.

So smaller states get a huge boost in their political power under the Electoral College, and I don’t think there will ever be enough momentum to change the system via a Constitutional Amendment.

But there’s another way. Stanford professor and computer scientist John Koza is the founder of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). This interstate agreement does not require Congressional approval and has been passed by 10 state legislatures and Washington, D.C. In effect, the agreement promises a state’s electors to the winner of the national popular vote, not to the outcome of its state vote. 

But I don’t think it will change. I like the idea of the popular vote winner actually winning, but I think we’re stuck with the Electoral College. 

As I was reminded of on the slopes of the Andes, we are a republic, not a democracy.

(Reach Scott McLeod at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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