Electoral College v. Popular Vote - How Big Is Too Big?

This general topic has come up a few times in the various 2020 Presidential Election threads, but I wanted to make a more specific one about a very specific question. It was spurred by this response in a Slate article that Bill Door posted in a different thread. The person being interviewed gave the following response:

I found this, especially the last part, interesting.

So my questions are specifically to those who support the Electoral College (NOT those that support a direct national popular vote for President).

How big of a difference between the national popular vote is too big before you would agree with the person quoted above that American could no longer be described as a Democratic Republic? At what point would you support changing the Presidential election process to better reflect the will of the voters? At what point would you have legitimate concerns about the integrity of the Union?

I am not directly a fan of the Electoral College but I do think that geography needs to be represented similarly to population so that’s probably close enough to answer your question.

To start off I think that we need the ‘land’ to have a vote mainly because there concerns are different and equally valid to the concerns of the urban dwellers but a strict popular vote could override them simply and focus our resources only in the urban areas. Instead of Red/Blue think of urban/rural with the suburbanites as the swing voters.

We are dealing with such an issue here in Colorado where due to spiking property values in the urban areas the rural schools districts are being underfunded. The majority of people live in the urban area and want their taxes to go down without regard for how it is destroying rural schools.

As for how to balance it I generally like the idea of the electoral college being a combination of the house (popular vote) and the senate (‘land’ vote). I would drop the reapportionment act and increase the House so that each member represented ~30K citizens then I would scale the Senate so that each senator was worth 25 electoral college votes. Then you would need 6,757 votes (assuming I’ve done my quick math correctly) to become president. I would also proportion states’ electoral college votes by house district with the senate votes given to the winner of the majority of districts.

So overall a very different look and a ton of changes but we would still see increased weighting for rural areas to balance their lack of population.

I haven’t worked out the details of this, but there are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Wouldn’t this make districting even more fraught? I think it would have to go hand-in-hand with more non-partisan districting rules or it would quickly turn into a situation like some states have where the composition of the Congressional delegations don’t match state-wide preferences well.

  2. Why would you want the senate EV to go to the majority of districts rather than the majority of the population vote? That seems to over-weight the rural districts, and make the districting issues even more important.

In general I do agree that the easiest way to “save” the Electoral College is to dramatically increase the number of votes available by growing the House. I’ve heard people worry about logistics of a much larger House of Representatives but I’m not sure that’s insurmountable with technology being what it is. I’m not sure I’ve heard the wrinkle of increasing the “statewide/Senate” vote to be 25 EV, but I think having that as a possible point of compromise could work (the devil is in the details, I suppose).

I wonder, when you say you think that geography needs to be represented, do you have a feel for how much representation is necessary? Are you, generally speaking, OK with a 5% disparity between a national popular vote and a Presidential outcome or is that something that would concern you?

As a supporter of EC, I’d consider even 2% - like Hillary’s loss - to be too big a popular vote gap. For something like Gore-Bush, where the difference was almost negligible, that’s one thing. But even 2 percent is too big.

That being said, a nationwide popular vote would lead to issues like - recounts - you’d have to recount the whole nation instead of just Broward County.

Plus, as Republicans lose more and more voters (death of the elderly, etc.), you need more “electoral affirmative action” in order to keep Republicans competitive. Otherwise there will be less and less parity in the electoral sport. It’s the same reason that the NFL lets the worst team draft first and the Super Bowl champion last.

I think the Electoral College is still necessary for the same reason that the New Jersey Compromise was necessary; to balance the large states vs. the small states and in this era, urban vs. rural.

If we had direct popular vote or 6000+ electoral votes, or really any more granular set of votes, you’d have the same issue, which is that candidates and policies would favor urban voters extremely highly, probably to the detriment of rural voters and states.

What I think would mostly remedy the issue would be to apportion the electoral votes by House district, and then the senatorial electoral votes by the entire state. I think the “winner takes all” system is what screws things up so egregiously today.

Couldn’t the Republicans just adopt policies that appealed to more people, as opposed to relying on using a sports metaphor to justify keeping to policies that appeal to fewer and fewer?

It’s an interesting question. And I’m not sure the answer for me. In part because the “popular vote” just isn’t a metric that is used to determine presidential elections.

As a practical matter, there has only been one presidential election in US history where a candidate has received a majority of the popular vote and lost the election (and I’m not certain that the result of that election was legitimate). But we have had numerous elections where a candidate received less than a majority of the popular and received a majority of the electoral vote (much of the time, that candidate has received a plurality of the popular vote).

I think that the electoral college has a certain unifying factor (but that’s just me) – most voters voted for someone other than Lincoln in 1860; someone other than Wilson in 1912 and 1916; other than Truman in 1948; and so on. But each of those elections had a clear victor in the electoral college and I think that bolsters the legitimacy of those presidencies. One of my main (and most obvious objections) to the idea of the popular vote is that if (heaven forbid!) we had more than two major political parties, you’d have candidates “winning” with 40% of the vote and I think that creates a bigger legitimacy crisis. (The electoral college is designed with a fail-safe to avoid anyone winning outright without a majority of the votes).

So, I guess my answer, is that I don’t really care about the difference between the winner and the loser, but if you saw elections (more than one) where a candidate got the majority of the vote and lost the electoral college, I’d be more likely to think that it was a problem.

(Not entirely tangentially, I’ve long supported the idea that all states should adopt the Nebraska/Maine model – or something similar – so that we don’t have elections determined by just a few states. Then again, it used to be that the objection to the electoral college was that it made the votes for certain voters in the “safe” states too powerful. But I’m certainly not going to do the math. And, for what it’s worth, I have no idea how the elections would have come out in the past if we used a different model).

I would note that using either of the proposed district-based methods would have still resulted in a Trump win in 2016, so if you believe 2% is too big of a gap then those won’t help: https://www.270towin.com/alternative-electoral-college-allocation-methods/

Even proportional popular vote by state, while helping, would have had Trump winning 267-265.

It doesn’t favor urban voters more.

In a popular vote, an urban voter would count exactly the same as a rural vote.

That there are more urban votes simply means that the needs of the urban voters should be considered more than those who represent less of the population.

In the current system, rural voters are favored extremely highly, at the detriment of urban voters and states.

I get why rural voters would like that. I just don’t get how they try to justify it. Sure, you need to be careful that you don’t have a tyranny of the majority, but you don’t do that by overcompensating and creating a tyranny of the minority.

Besides, it’s not like all urban voters are identical. Some are even Republican. The needs of someone in LA are not the same as someone in NY, just as the needs of someone in Kansas are not the same as those of someone in Iowa. The idea that there would become some monolithic entity based on urban areas is about the same as the idea that there would be come monolithic entity based on rural areas in the current system.

You’d end up with a candidate that had to appeal to both urban and rural voters to get elected.

Yeah, yeah, it’s the law, it’s the Constitution, I get that. But just saying that it is the law doesn’t mean that it is a good law.

Yeah, the math doesn’t work. Latest numbers for total population are 328,200,000. Divided by 30,000 that’s 10,940. Add 2500 votes from the Senate and that’s a total of 13,450.

The Census says that 62.7% of Americans live in cities on 3.4% of the land. So they would get 6866 representatives in the House. Heck, there must be individual blocks in Manhattan with 30,000 residents. Dividing the country this way makes no sense at all.

The House is far too large today to coherently formulate laws. It works solely because there is a small leadership who decide for the rest, after the political theater of hundreds of amendments. Making the House 25 times larger is as meaningful as asking a crowd at a rock concert to shout out what songs to sing. (The only way the horde matters is that having that many bodies limits the number of committees that members have to sit on.)

Remember that the entire country was stacked toward rural voters until one man/one vote laws were passed in the 1960s. By that time cities were doomed and many have never recovered. We have to see how the country rejiggers itself post-COVID but the cities will almost certainly continue to dominate. Rural states will continue to have outsized representation in the Senate but they only require having their needs seen and addressed and shouldn’t have any say over the vast majority of city dwellers.

I’ve said as much in other threads on the EC, but your concept of democratic “fairness” depends on how you view the concept of “States”. Is the state of “Texas” or “Delaware” an individual, indivisible unit, with it’s own rights and authority equal to the other states, or is it merely a collection of people grouped within arbitrary borders (and if so, why do we even have states to begin with)?

The EC reduces an *individual’*s democracy (one person, one vote) in favor of a state’s democracy (one state, one vote) - but doesn’t go all-in on this concept like the Senate does.

As a thought experiment, imagine Rhode Island (don’t fight the hypothetical here) grew in population until it contained 51% of the entire US. Do we want a president (or a whole system of government, for that matter) campaigning on catering to only RI’s needs? Or do we want a president that maybe emphasizes RI, but also tries to get a broad base of support across the other states?

In this scenario, RI already has almost de-facto control of the House here. They already act as a check against pretty much anything going through government. Do they need to have total control of the entire government as well?

Do I have concerns when the EC winner loses by 5% of the popular vote? Sure. I think there are probably better ways to address the issue (uncapping the House, for example), without blowing up the EC.

There’s an interesting NY Times opinion piece

I don’t know if it’s behind a paywall as I have access, so I’ll quote an interesting historical insight:

It’s not only liberals who understand the problem with winner-take-all. In 1950, a Texas representative named Ed Gossett took to the floor of Congress to vent about the unfairness of a system that gave some voters more influence in the election than others, solely because of where they live. New York was at the time the nation’s largest and most important swing state, and the voters who decided which way it swung were racial and ethnic minorities in large urban areas.

“Now, please understand, I have no objection to the Negro in Harlem voting and to his vote being counted,” Gossett said, “but I do resent the fact that both parties will spend a hundred times as much money to get his vote and that his vote is worth a hundred times as much in the scale of national politics as is the vote of a white man in Texas.”

“Is it fair, is it honest, is it democratic, is it to the best interest of anyone in fact, to place such a premium on a few thousand” votes from racial and ethnic minorities, he went on, “simply because they happen to be located in two or three large, industrial pivotal states?”

I actually want to go even further than I did in my previous reply to you. Analysis of 2016 results has shown that this system is actually WORSE than the winner take all system. Clinton could have lost by over 5% and still lost in 2016 if you divided EV this way: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/under-a-new-system-clinton-could-have-won-the-popular-vote-by-5-points-and-still-lost/

The inequity (if you see it as such) comes from the ratio of “extra” votes (the Senate votes) to “population” votes (the House votes). Any way of “fixing” the system has to address those extra votes, either by eliminating them or diluting them.

Yes, that many districts would have to set up in a non-partisan manner being compact and contiguous. The other side of it is with only 30K in a district even minorities in the district would still be able to get their voices heard. I believe congress critters would be more responsive to their districts if they were much smaller. How much they would be able to accomplish has more to do with their skill as a politician.

While there shouldn’t be much of a difference between population vote and district vote with such small districts I would not want large majorities in some districts to swamp the desires of more balanced districts. Basically, this is one of my attempts to give ‘land’ a vote.

The reason I bumped up the EV for senators is otherwise theri 100 votes wouldn’t matter against the 11,000 EVs for population. Again this is just a slight tilting of the scales towards land.

It would depend on the scenario. I could certainly imagine a scenario where the top 10 states in population (representing ~163mm people) voted for a candidate 66/33 while the other 40 states were split 51/49 the other way. That would give the candidate from the urban states ~189mm votes to 147.8mm votes or about a 41mm vote advantage for 12.6% popular win and they would lose the EC. That doesn’t bother me too much. I could develop another version where they won 100% of the vote in even less states that would be more extreme and I’d be ok there too. I think big wins in a small number of places should count less than smaller wins over large amounts of the country.

I basically agree with this but I think smaller districts have advantages in congress and could help lead us out of a two party system.

The rest of your post is great but and I wanted to respond to you so I just grabbed the key point. While New York and Houston may not have identical demands they are much more closely related than New York and Texarkana, Arkansas. I’ve seen in both California and Colorado that the urban voters (where they do get to rule just by population) don’t care about the rural areas and enact statewide policy to just benefit the urban areas. That’s bad on a statewide level but its worse nationaly.

You forgot to divide by 2. We’re only off by 32 votes to win and that’s because I used 330mm for my US population.

I disagree there are certainly ways to structure the house to work effectively with 11,000 members. Mainly through committees and voting blocks. I think the bigger problem with congress is that aside from a name I know nothing about my congressman and he knows nothing about me. There are over 800K people in my congressional district and while you can argue that 30K is too small 800K is ridiculously large.

But the rural areas don’t care about the urban areas. That’s bad on both levels as well.

I do think that if you had a popular vote, then it would actually be harder for a candidate to line up all the cities behind them, or even just a few. They would have to court the rural vote as well as the urban vote.

Right now, it is a given that most of the large cities will go for the Democrat, but that is only because they are in states that will go for the Democrat. If the city was actually divided up into popular vote, I think you would see far more diversity.

From what I’ve seen there is more interaction with rural people going into urban areas than with urban people going to rural areas. Such that I live in a town of 8,000 and I just drove 30 minutes to a suburb of 30K to take my kid to the doctor so I care about the roads in that town and the crime while no one from the suburb care about my town.

I’ll agree that it is more abstract and I don’t really care about the homeless population in Denver and its easy for me to say that they should be able to camp where they please since my town doesn’t have a homeless population while a resident who has to walk through the crime and filth may be supportive of the city breaking up the homeless camps when they becomes a health hazard. I think that is a problem whenever we lump people together though which is kind or required at the national level.

Why? What justification is there for “balancing” rural voters when there are fewer of them than urban voters?

There are more white voters in this country than black voters. Should we balance that out by giving black voters extra representation?

Texas has 6 of the top 25 largest cities in the US. At the county level, Only Ft Worth (Tarrant County) voted for the Republican in the 2016 presidential election.

What should I divide by 2?

Imagine that every single person in the town and the surrounding areas had to get together and decide on what goes into a single bill to address the needs of the entire country. You’d still be arguing in the 22nd century.

The vast majority of issues in this country are people issues, not land issues. The bulk of the attention and the money needs to address the people issues. Wyoming, the least populous state, should get a proportionate share, which is 0.002. You would give them 0.009. Why do they deserve that?

I didn’t say balancing rural voters vs. urban voters. I said states.

That’s the thing here, we’re a federal republic, not some sort of direct democracy. States still count at the Federal level, and are still the primary unit of government in most every way.

So looking at it that way, Wyoming needs a little bit of help not getting run over by the Californias of the union. Not that Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes aren’t hugely outweighed by California’s 55, but it’s 3, not effectively less than one, like you’d get in a popular vote.