More Electoral College Follies

Photo: MinnPost, illustration by Jaime Anderson

Don’t look now, but there’s another presidential election headed your way.  And along with it, inevitably, is a campaign by Republicans to defend the Electoral College — without which they know they would have a very hard time winning a presidential election. And since there are no solid factual defenses for the Electoral College, that inevitably means that they offer all kinds of spurious arguments built on misinformation and flawed reasoning. Of course, they’re really just trying to defend the intentions of the Founders (wink, wink), never mind that the Founders probably would be shitting hockey pucks if they could see what an unholy nightmare their Frankenstein creature has become.

We’ve already discussed the problems with the EC, and examined the most popular fallacy invoked to support it.  But conservatives are limitless and relentless in their capacity for churning out absurd arguments. As a result, several fairly fresh ones have been making the rounds lately — largely courtesy of PragerU — as well as a couple of old ones that seem to have been given a transfusion. Let’s take a look at some of the most common.

1. It encourages “coalition building” and campaigning across a broad swath of America

This is one of those absurdities cranked out by Pragerists that make you wonder exactly what universe those folks have been discovering up their asses.  Yes, if by “coalition building” you mean making campaign promises that may or may not be kept, then that certainly happens under the present system. But why would it happen any less under a popular election? Everyone’s vote would count the same (presently, a vote in Wyoming carries nearly 4 times as much weight as a vote in California), so candidates would be campaigning for the votes of an entire nation rather than just a handful of swing states.

2. It protects against the tyranny of a slim majority

If you thought number one above was daft, here’s one to leave it in the dust. Under the Electoral College, a far slimmer minority is tyrannizing the rest of the country — it’s possible for a candidate to win the electoral vote with as little as 22 percent of the popular vote — and tyrannical minorities are much more tyrannical than tyrannical majorities. (“Pure majorities don’t work”, the presenter proclaims, as if electing the president by popular vote would somehow transform the nation into a “pure majority”. It wouldn’t by a long shot.) Sure, it’s absolutely important to protect the interests of the minority; but there are surely better ways of doing that than just handing them the keys to the kingdom, as the E.C. sometimes does. And it’s worth noting that a great many conservatives have never been opposed to the tyranny of either a minority or a majority when they happen to be a part of it. They’ve had no problem, for instance, with Christians mandating their religious dogma into law or heterosexuals discriminating against gays.

3. It makes it harder to steal votes

First, we would have to agree on a definition of “stealing” votes. And then we would have to agree that it is indeed possible to steal them, whatever that may entail, in appreciable numbers. But one thing we absolutely can’t agree on is that the Electoral College makes them harder to steal. Quite the opposite is true.

The reasoning behind this preposterous claim is that when you have the votes chopped up across the states, vote thieves wouldn’t know which state(s) to target. Seriously? Is there anyone alive who doesn’t know how to use Google well enough to find the state polling numbers? And stealing a small number of votes is much more likely to flip a state (which could flip the entire election) than to influence the outcome of a national vote.

A classic illustration is what happened in 2000. It was one of the closest presidential elections ever, and it all came down to one state. Bush’s official margin of “victory” in Florida was 537 votes. This included 630 votes he received from a block of 680 overseas ballots that were submitted after the deadline and thus by law should have been disqualified. But his campaign team, knowing that most of those votes would in all likelihood go to him, pushed hard to have the illicit ballots included; and Bush’s cohort Katherine Harris, who was serving as Florida’s Secretary Of State rather than serving time, was all too happy to comply and order that the date and time of the ballots be ignored.

This, if anything, surely qualifies as “stealing votes”. And it was, in itself, sufficient to make the difference in the election, even without all the many other GOP shenanigans. Meanwhile, Gore won nationwide by more than half a million votes; and those 630 would not have made a dent. And this, mind you, was in an extremely close election.

4. Look at the map, stupid

This one has been around for quite some time, but it keeps getting recycled. You’ll frequently see a map like this:


Followed by the declaration that this proves the need for the Electoral College. Actually, it proves just the opposite. Let’s look at another map, shall we?


That one depicts the population density of the U.S. By comparing the two maps it’s easy to see that heavy Republican territory corresponds rather neatly to the parts of the country where no one lives. Does it really make sense that a prairie dog in Wyoming would have a greater voice in the selection of president than a school teacher in California?

5. Farmers will become serfs

If all else fails, get apocalyptic.  A recent article in USA Today issues the dire warning that if the nation descends into democratic elections, rural Americans will be turned into servile “serfs” like in the Middle Ages. Yes, it actually said this. And that taking away the lopsided advantage the Heartland has in presidential elections would cause the rural folk there to “lose their voice”.  (It’s a standard refrain of white privilege that if you lose your big advantage over other people, it constitutes being marginalized yourself.) Such silly conclusions depend upon several equally silly premises: (a) that all agricultural workers live in red states. (Deep blue California is actually one of the leading agricultural states.); (b)  that all agricultural workers vote the same, and (c) that everybody within each state votes the same.

6. Inconvenient Counties

As you might expect, fans of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant tend to be big cheerleaders for the skewed system that put him in office. Some of them have been circulating a meme that goes like this: (a) Hillary won the popular tally by nearly 3 million votes (and you should realize what a breakthrough it is to get MAGA cultists to acknowledge that she won at all); (b) but if you subtracted Los Angeles County and Cook County (i.e., Chicagoland), then the Other Guy wold have won the popular vote; (c) therefore, in a popular election, Hillary would have been elected by merely two counties; (d) thus, we really need the Electoral College to keep Hillary from winning.

Has your head stopped spinning yet?

This meme is really just another way of saying that some counties have a lot of people in them. Who woulda thunk it? By the same token, you could subtract a couple of counties from Florida and Pennsylvania, and the Other Guy would not have won the Electoral College. What’s the point? If you subtracted enough counties from both candidates, Gary Johnson would have won on both counts.

Write this down and underline it: nobody is elected by merely two counties. Or even two states. Such a premise simply ignores the millions of other votes the candidates receive — and need. But if we were to humor the MAGA cultists on this point and concede that yes, indeed, a single county can determine an election, then we’d also feel obliged to point out that this is much more likely under the Electoral College than it would be under a popular vote.

Go back to Florida in 2000. Bush’s margin of “victory” was 537 votes. That’s far fewer than the number of voters in most counties. (And by the way, we have come to consider Florida the “decisive” state in that election only because it was the last, by far, to be “resolved”.) As with all of the other justifications people offer for the Electoral College, this one is self-defeating. Along the same lines, it’s quite irrelevant how many counties a candidate wins. Some counties have a great many residents, others have almost none. And the U.S. President is not a county office.

7. But California and New York

Not only does the Electoral College Army believe that a couple of states can dictate a popular election, they are often quite specific about which two states: California and New York. Otherwise known as the land of coastal elites. Interestingly, they never, ever mention a couple of other coastal states: Texas (the second most populous) and Florida (the third). Wonder why not?

Republicans are horrified over the prospect of the heavily populated blue Gomorrah of NewYorkandCalifornia determining their national leader, as opposed to having him chosen by god-fearing KansasandNebraska. The irony is that in a popular vote, California and New York would actually have significantly less impact in the great majority of cases. And understanding why requires only the application of some fundamental grade school arithmetic.

At present, these two states combined have a population of about 59 million, which is about 18 percent of the national total of 327 million. So if we assume that every state has roughly the same percentage of voters and voter turnout, then those two states would contribute about 18 percent of the total votes. With me so far? Good. (Note: in 2016, both states actually were just slightly below the national average in turnout.)

Now 18 percent may be a sizable chunk, but it still would fall far short of sufficient to elect a president in almost any conceivable election, even if Californians and New Yorkers voted unanimously. And they don’t. Far from it. Even though they’re both considered solid blue states, they vote an average of about 55 percent Democratic (based on the past three presidential elections). That means that in a typical election, about 10 percent of the total votes cast are Democratic votes from New York and California. (.55 times .18 equals .099.)

In the Electoral College, however, those states do vote unanimously.  That 55 percent gets magically transformed into 100 percent,  and the voice of Republican and other non-Democratic voters is totally silenced. (How’s that for tyranny of the majority? If those millions of GOP and other voters just stayed home, it wouldn’t alter the election one whit.) As a result all of the 84 electoral votes belonging to those states are awarded to the preferred candidate. Those 84 represent 15.6 percent of the total 538. Thus, while Democratic voters in these two states contribute about 10 percent of the popular vote, they contribute 15.6 percent of the electoral vote. And as you probably realize, 15.6 is more than 10.

Furthermore, it’s quite possible that in some elections, the difference could be even more lopsided. Suppose you had several candidates splitting the field, and as a result the preferred candidate of NewYorkandCalifornia receives only 25 percent of the vote. That would be only 4.5 percent of the total — and the Electoral College percentage would still be 15.6.

Does this mean that Democratic voters are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to eliminate the E.C. and they should just keep their mouths shut? Not at all. Democratic voters in NewYorkandCalifornia would lose a bit of influence in a popular vote only if those votes are regarded as separate from the rest of the country; but ending the Electoral College would end that compartmentalization. All Democratic votes and all Republican votes would work together. Whichever candidate would get the most votes in the whole nation would become the leader of the whole nation. Period.

To put it in perspective, consider the 2016 results from New York and Florida, which have close to the same population. Together, they produced 9,061,099 votes for Hillary Clinton, compared to 7,437,420 for the Republican. But they coughed up 29 electoral votes for each of them. In effect, more than 1.5 million votes were just discarded. That’s more than the population of some states.

The whole point of trying to eliminate the E.C. is to prevent some states from being more influential than others — to make everyone’s vote count equally. The Electoral College does one thing and one thing only: it assigns your vote a weight based solely on your zip code. It determines, in effect, that some voters are more important than others. Until such time as that might be changed, Americans should not even pretend that they have fair and democratic elections.


  1. Ever since I was a child, I have heard politicians lamenting over the unfairness of the EC, but for all of my life that boondoggle has never been discarded–presumably because enough votes in Congress continued to exist enough to to keep the present system form being axed. And currently, like a guilty sinner, Trump remains obsessed about legitimacy of his own victory.

    In contrast, Hillary Clinton conceded her loss fairly early in the evening and gave a standard speech asking her voters to support Trump when their support was rightfully needed. So, its obvious who keeps obsessing about the election!

    Likewise, the prevalence of our bizarrely skewed process of convenient shifting demographic regions, known as gerrymandering keeps on manipulating districts to ensure a victory for Republicans.

    So when will the poop hit the fan and result in a clear rejection of these two issues? in practical terms they are just moot attempts to create the illusion of seeking changes, and EC critics can do nothing to change them, even though both of these electoral monsters are known to have been used to manipulate elections?

    So much crap is being thrown by Republicans that many voters cannot keep up with it and make sure our elections are fair. All we can really hope for is that the GOP’s bad karma will be its own undoing–causing them shoot themselves in their Conservative feet while dispensing so much garbage that even some staunch republicans doubt that its true!

  2. Here is the same comment I posted above–hopefully with less errors.

    Ever since I was a child, I have heard politicians lamenting over the unfairness of the EC, but for all of my life that boondoggle has never been discarded–presumably because enough votes in Congress continue to exist in order to keep the present system from being axed! And currently, like a guilty sinner,Trump remains obsessed about legitimacy of his own victory.

    In contrast, Hillary Clinton conceded her loss fairly early in the evening and gave a standard speech asking her voters to support Trump when their support was needed. So, isn’t it obvious who keeps obsessing about the election!

    Likewise, the prevalence of our bizarrely skewed process of conveniently shifting demographic regions, known as gerrymandering, keeps manipulating districts enough to ensure victory for vulnerable Republicans.

    So, when will the poop hit the fan enough to allow for the rejections of both political albatrosses? in practical terms Republicans voices are really just moot attempts to create the illusion that the GOP is actively seeking changes–even though EC critics can do nothing to change them–even though both of these electoral monsters have been used to manipulate elections even before heading for the hills?

    So much crap is being thrown by Republicans, that many voters cannot keep up with it, and thus cannot make sure that our elections are fair. All we can really hope for is that the GOP’s bad karma will become the source of its own undoing–causing Republicans to shoot themselves in their Conservative feet, while dispensing so much garbage that, even they, are begin to doubt that’s true!

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