My second blog post ever was a two-parter entitled "The Electoral College." In that post, I explained many problems with the system, such as its bias against territories, overrepresentation of small states, and, first and foremost, deviation from the popular vote. The writing was pretty good, and my points were clear and concise. However, I only gave the post two stars for my yearly review article. Why?
Because it's wrong.*
(If this blog was a TV show, this is where the credits would roll.)
Welcome to Chromatic Conflux! I wanted to know more about who the Electoral College actually gives the edge to. The answer isn't "Republicans" or even "Democrats." (Though it is true that Republicans have gotten help from it more often in recent years.) I designed a set of graphics illustrating this that I'll display in just a minute.
I wanted to know more about who the Electoral College actually gives the edge to. The answer isn't "Republicans" or even "Democrats."
Before I show the charts, here's how they work. Electoral College advantage can be calculated in two clear ways:
(1) The Tipping-Point Method. If you sort the states by their margin in the election, look at the state that pushed the winning candidate over 270, giving them a majority. This is called the tipping-point state. Compare the vote percentage each candidate received in the tipping-point state with their national percentage. This does a better job of answering the question, "Which candidate was more likely to win the Electoral College but not the popular vote, and how much more likely?"
(2) The Ratio Method. Take the percentage of votes each candidate received. Take the percentage of Electoral College votes each candidate was awarded. Compare. This does a better job of answering the question, "How close were Electoral College delegate percentages to the popular vote?"
Both of these ways are intuitive, and they have their unique pros and cons. So I made two charts going back to 1980, one with each method. Upward bars show a Democratic advantage, and downward bars Republican.
They're Kind of Not the Same
You may have noticed that these charts have stark differences. For one, the tipping-point method shows that the Electoral College tends to have an effect of around 0.27 percentage points, whereas the ratio method points to a whopping 7.92% average change.
This is because one clear effect of the College is to increase the size of wins. Take 1992. Democrat Bill Clinton got just 43.01% of the vote, more than any other candidate but well under half, and received 370 electoral votes, or 68.77% of them. Independent Ross Perot got 18.91% of the vote but failed to clinch a single electoral vote. Yet is this a failure of the Electoral College, or simply making wins more decisive? The tipping-point method doesn't care–to it, winning 538-0 and 271-269 are just the same. I'm inclined to say the tipping-point method is superior (meaning this sort of incongruity is totally OK), but I've included both graphs for you to examine.
Aside on the Results of the Ratio Method
The ratio method would imply that it is, since it looks at the differential between the popular vote and the electoral vote. According to that chart, every candidate with an advantage in the Electoral College also ended up winning, which is shocking. (The tipping-point chart disagrees in the cases of 1980, 1992, and 2004.)
In 2000, the Electoral College and popular vote were almost the same.
The Year 2000
There is one characteristic these charts agree on: in 2000, the Electoral College and popular vote were almost the same. According to the ratio method, it's has the smallest differential of just 0.63% for Republican George W. Bush, the only election to be under 1%. Why is this? Well, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote narrowly, by about half a percentage point, or around 500,000 votes out of over 10 million total. Bush won the Electoral College by just as narrow a margin, with 271 electoral votes to Gore's 267.** It was truly a close election, and in this case, the Electoral College induced a bit of chaos into the result, which just happened to change the result.
The Thing About Third Parties
Another feature of the Electoral College is that minor parties are completely wrecked. The last candidate who was a member of neither of the top two parties to be victorious was George Washington. This is arguably less an issue with the Electoral College and more an issue with the vote-counting system, and how it has no protocol for second-place votes. In the 2016 presidential election, 5.73% of voters picked a candidate outside the major parties. Given the stigma around "wasting" votes for third parties, this would almost certainly be higher if they had a chance. The current system disdains this significant minority unenamored with both the Democrats and the Republicans.
I was actually spot-on in last year's post when I talked about the disenfranchisement of territories in the Electoral College:
"Another often-dismissed part of this issue are the United States territories. Puerto Rico is home to over 3 million Americans, compared to Wyoming's less than 600,000, yet Wyoming outnumbers Puerto Rico 3:0 in electoral votes. This system completely ignores more than 4 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas Islands. We are marginalizing these people and effectively making them second-class citizens. I just think this should be on more people's radar."
What Does This All Mean
That post, however, states that, "the person people like the best could lose." This is true! This is bad! But furthermore, I said that "all five elections the popular vote did not line up with the actual elections outcome, the Republican won the eating contest; the Democrat, the popular vote." This is true, but misleading; the sample size is more than five. Looking again at the year 2000, the Electoral College's effect was miniscule, it was just miniscule in the right place. In the 2008 election, Democrat Barack Obama benefitted significantly more from the system than Bush in 2000. In fact, had McCain done just a bit better on Election Day, it's possible he could have received more votes than Obama but still ultimately have been defeated.
Imagine three systems with which to choose presidential candidates:
(1) The popular vote.
(2) The popular vote, but Republicans get 2% more votes and Democrats 2% less.
(3) The popular vote, but there's a random fluctuation of up to 2% in either direction, though a Republican fluctuation is a bit more common.
The popular vote, but there's a random fluctuation of up to 2% in either direction, though a Republican fluctuation is a bit more common.
Clearly (1) is the fairest, followed by (3) and then (2). The Electoral College is essentially (3), not (2). That's all you need to know.*** –beautifulthorns
*It's not all wrong. It's more that it oversimplifies the issue than that any given sentence is not based in fact. Ironically, the same is true about the sentence "Because it's wrong." above.
***The spreadsheet I used for this data is big and messy. It's right here if you want a look.