As the presidential race inches agonizingly toward a conclusion, it might be easy to miss the fact that the results are not really close.
With many ballots still left to count in heavily Democratic cities, former Vice President Joe Biden was leading President Donald Trump on Friday by more than 4.1 million votes. Amid all the anxiety over the counts in Pennsylvania and Georgia, and despite Americans’ intense ideological divisions, there was no question that — for the fourth presidential election in a row, and the seventh of the past eight — more people had chosen a Democrat than a Republican.
Only once in the past 30 years have more Americans voted for a Republican: in 2004, when President George W. Bush beat John Kerry by about 3 million votes. But three times, a Republican has been elected.
Biden is very likely to win the Electoral College, avoiding another split with the popular vote. But the prolonged uncertainty despite the public’s fairly decisive preference — Biden’s current vote margin is larger than the populations of more than 20 states, and larger than Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016 — has intensified some Americans’ anger at a system in which a minority of people can often claim a majority of power.
“We look at a map of so-called red and blue states and treat that map as land and not people,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University who researches voter suppression. “Why, when somebody has won millions more votes than their opponent, are we still deliberating over 10,000 votes here, 5,000 votes there?”
In principle, the Electoral College could benefit either party depending on the geographic distribution of its supporters. As recently as four years ago, it looked like it would help Democrats, and in 2004, if Kerry had won just 119,000 more votes in Ohio out of more than 5.6 million cast there, he would have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
But in practice, it has overwhelmingly benefited Republicans in recent years, despite the national electorate tilting the other way. And the potential for the Electoral College to diverge from the popular vote has only grown as more Americans have come to live in urban areas and many communities have become more ideologically homogeneous.
In 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by about 550,000 votes but Bush won the Electoral College, such a split hadn’t happened in more than a century. Now, it has happened twice in 20 years and come close to happening a third time, despite much larger popular-vote margins. What used to be an extreme rarity has begun to feel common.
Therein lies a more serious concern than partisan politics: the potential delegitimization of the United States’ democratic systems in the eyes of its citizens.
“The more this happens, the more you get the sense that voters don’t have a say in the choice of their leaders,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “And you cannot have a democracy over a period of time that survives if a majority of people believe that their franchise is meaningless.”
The United States, as supporters of the Electoral College often note, is a republic, meaning decisions are made through elected representatives rather than by direct vote. But “the fundamental of a republican form of democracy,” Ornstein said, “is that voters choose their representatives, who then make decisions on their behalf.”
The prospect of minority rule is certainly not new, and the fact that the Constitution allows it is by design, not accident. Most obvious, the Constitution originally allowed only white men to vote, and most states required voters to own property, too, disenfranchising most Americans.
The three-fifths clause, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional apportionment, gave Southern states more representation on the backs of people who couldn’t vote for and weren’t represented by their ostensible representatives. By 1820, Anderson said, the South had 18 to 20 extra seats in the House as a result.
The Founders also consciously made the Senate unrepresentative, giving each state two seats regardless of population and leaving it to state legislators to fill them. The intent was for the Senate to serve as a check on the will of the people, which was to be represented in the House.
But the 17th Amendment established direct election of senators in 1913, and the difference in population between the largest and smallest states has vastly increased since the Constitution was written. The current Democratic minority in the Senate was elected with more votes than the Republican majority, and by 2040, based on population projections, about 70% of Americans will be represented by 30% of senators.
Nearly a century ago, Carroll H. Wooddy published an academic paper that examined the likelihood of “unrepresentative votes” in the Senate, by which he meant votes in which senators on the winning side represented fewer Americans than senators on the losing side. He concluded that these votes happened infrequently, largely because “there has been no continuous alliance of thinly populated states against the more densely peopled areas.”
Today, of course, population density is very much correlated with partisanship, and the makeup of the Senate is unrepresentative of the population not only in party but in race, gender, age and other characteristics.
Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it protects less-populous states, ensuring that their interests aren’t overridden by those of, say, New York and California. At the same time, opponents note that the system means candidates pay attention only to a small number of states, and that it devalues the votes of people in either party who live in a state dominated by the other. Republicans in Illinois don’t affect presidential elections, and neither do Democrats in Tennessee.
It remains to be seen whether the 2020 election will give new fuel to efforts to eliminate or circumvent the Electoral College, which have always been long shots even though a majority of Americans — 61% in a Gallup poll released in September; 58% in a Pew Research Center poll in March — believe it should be abolished.
John Koza, the chairperson of National Popular Vote Inc., said his group — which has been pushing state legislatures for years to sign on to a compact in which states would pledge to award their electors to the winner of the national popular vote — planned to lobby intensively next year in states including Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The compact has already been signed by states, mainly blue, totaling 196 electoral votes, but it will not take effect unless that number reaches 270.
Koza, a computer scientist who taught at Stanford University, argues that the Electoral College should be abolished not because it systematically benefits one party over the other, but because it increases the odds that election results will be challenged even when Americans’ overall preference is clear — precisely what is happening now.
“When you split the 150 million votes into 50 buckets, there’s going to be close results in a certain number of the states,” he said. This “spawns disputes, and then it spawns lawyers running into court over hairsplitting issues, trying to win the White House for their candidate even though their candidate hasn’t won the support of people across the country.”
While the idea of abolishing the Electoral College is popular mainly among Democrats now, there was more bipartisan support before the 2016 election made it clear how much it could benefit Republicans. Before 2016, a common interpretation had been the opposite: that Democrats had the advantage because of the now-famous “blue wall” that included Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Republicans are disappearing from the competitive landscape at the national level across the most heavily populated sections of the country while intensifying their hold on a declining electoral bloc of aging, white, rural voters,” Chris Ladd, a conservative writer, wrote in The Houston Chronicle after the 2014 midterm elections. “It became apparent from the numbers last week that no Republican candidate has a credible shot at the White House in 2016, and the chance of the GOP holding the Senate for longer than two years is precisely zero.”
In early 2016, a bill that would have added Missouri to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact passed legislative committees unanimously, and similar bills received at least some bipartisan support in Oklahoma and Utah.
But “legislators didn’t have much appetite for it once Trump won the way he did,” Koza said. “The issue is bipartisan when it’s looked at as a policy issue of what’s good government, what’s the right way to do it. But anything else inevitably becomes intertwined with, does one party think they have a temporary political advantage by keeping the system the same?”