I’ll get this out of the way first: The electoral college sucks. It’s grossly undemocratic. It sucks for a jillion reasons, and we should dump it.
And also: When people criticize the electoral college, they often make a large, important mistake.
One of the most common arguments against the electoral college is that the person with the most votes should win. Like, duh. But (the argument goes) several candidates for President have lost their elections — even though they won the popular vote. It happened with Al Gore in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016. And that’s not right. If we’d had a normal, popular vote election, the argument goes, these candidates would have won.
But here’s the problem. If we hadn’t had the electoral college, candidates for President would have campaigned differently — which means the popular vote would have been different.
So we can’t say with any kind of certainty who would have won those elections.
I’ll say that again: If we didn’t have the electoral college, Presidential elections would be pursued very, very differently. Without the electoral college, there would be no such thing as swing states, and no reason for candidates to dump all their resources into them. It would make no sense to ignore California and desperately seek Ohio. Instead of playing the seven-dimensional chess game of which states to campaign in, candidates would simply try to appeal to more voters. And that would radically shift how they’d campaign.
The most obvious example: Campaigns would almost certainly focus more on cities. The U.S. population is urbanizing, and has been throughout its history. Today, 80 percent of the country lives in urban areas, with 40 percent in cities and the other 40 percent in suburbs. So without the electoral college, candidates wouldn’t be so frantic about voters in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. They’d be a lot more concerned about voters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.
And this would change the way they’d campaign. Media buys, campaign appearances, get out the vote efforts, even policies and policy proposals — all would be much more centered on cities. And that would change the outcome of the popular vote.
Does that mean Bush would have won a popular election in 2000? No. Nooooooo. Quite the opposite. In this scenario, I think Gore would have won the popular vote by even more than he did. I’d actually argue that if Presidential elections had always been done by popular vote, then for the last several decades they’d have skewed further left than they did. The U.S. population is urbanizing, it’s been more urban than rural since 1920 — and cities in the U.S. have voted more progressively and more Democratic for almost a century.
But of course, if we’d always had popular elections instead of the accursed electoral college, everything about our history would be different. We might have elected William Randolph Hearst as President in 1944, who initiated the disastrous war with Greenland, which led to the 1952 landslide election of our first woman president, Eleanor Roosevelt — and so on and so on, the alternate timeline unfolding step by step, right up to the fabled, close-run 2000 election between Huey Newton and Jamie Lee Curtis. If the basic structure of our elections had been different, it would be the butterfly effect writ large. It would be a gigantic mutant butterfly flapping its wings and causing political hurricanes to rip through history.
Which brings me back, somehow, to my point. Yes, the electoral college is terrible. It’s grossly undemocratic, and we should absolutely get rid of it. But we can’t look at how many people voted for Gore in 2000 under the electoral college system, and assume that the same number would have voted for him in a regular popular election. The preconditions change the outcome. We just don’t know.
P.S. All this is true for the 2016 election as well. I’m using Al Gore as my example because the 2016 election is a source of deep trauma for me, and it’s painful to think too closely about how it could have gone differently and what life would be like in that other timeline. Also, when you say the words “Hillary Clinton” on the internet, it’s like saying “Bloody Mary” into a mirror: hordes of screaming trolls come rushing out of the woodwork to make your life a misery.