What if the Electoral College wasn’t winner-take-all?

Members of the Electoral College vote in New York in 2012. Tim Roske, Associated Press

This story was updated on December 30, 2016.

For the second time in the five most recent U.S. elections, the winner of the popular vote did not receive a majority of votes in the Electoral College. Donald Trump, despite carrying only 47 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent, appears to have won the Electoral College 306-232  by scoring razor-thin victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Here’s the current 2016 Electoral College map under the current rules, which award Electoral College votes to the winner of each state on a winner-take-all basis:

Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

(As of the creation of this map, the results of the Michigan election had not yet been certified. Donald Trump was declared the winner of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes on November 28.)

Just like after the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush became president despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore, there have been calls from several prominent liberals – including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) – to abolish the Electoral College system and move to presidential elections decided by the national popular vote. Even President-elect Trump said he would “rather see” elections decided by the popular vote.

But what if an overhaul of our national elections system can’t or won’t go that far? What if we kept the Electoral College and the constitutional provisions surrounding it and instead awarded Electoral College votes to candidates proportionally based on the share of the vote they receive in each state? Well, the map for the 2016 election could’ve looked something like this:

Proportional Electoral Vote (P.E.V.) System, 2016 election

(Maine should be gray because its votes would be split 2-2 under our system. I made a mistake while making the map).

Under this system, where electoral votes are awarded proportionally, the vote totals from the 2016 election would have assigned 264 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton, and 264 to Donald Trump. This electoral vote tie shows how drastically the winner-take-all system benefited Donald Trump in this election. Additionally, under the proportional electoral vote system, third-party candidates Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin aren’t completely shut out in the Electoral College, although Johnson does significantly better than either of his minor-party rivals with eight votes.

It’s also interesting to note how a proportional system like this changes our perception of “red states,” “blue states,” and “swing states.” Many states that are considered “swing states” were so close this election that they would have split their electoral votes evenly under a proportional system. In fact, 10 states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would have awarded an equal number of electoral votes to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Plus, “red states” and “blue states” show their purple sides in a map like this: California, the bluest of blue states, awards a substantial 18 electoral votes to Trump under this system, second only to Texas. In solidly Republican states, Trump often wins only one or two more electoral votes than Clinton, and vice-versa in Democratic states.

In the hypothetical situation laid out above, where Clinton and Trump collect 264 electoral votes apiece with 8 for Johnson, 1 for Stein, and 1 for McMullin, the presidential election is sent to the House of Representatives. According to the Constitution, each state’s delegation receives one vote, and the delegations can choose only from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes (in this case, Clinton, Trump, and Johnson). Although it’s fun to envision a wacky scenario where Johnson wins as a kind of compromise candidate, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the House would select Trump, given the dominant Republican control of House delegations:

U.S. House of Representatives state delegations (114th Congress)
US House Delegates

All told, Republicans currently control the House delegations of 33 states, while Democrats control the delegations of only 14. Three states have delegations split evenly between the two parties. In our P.E.V. system, Trump won a majority of electoral votes in 25 of the states where a majority of the Congresspeople are Republicans. This leaves only one delegation left to be convinced – which wouldn’t be too hard with states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where Trump won the popular vote. States like Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia, where Republicans have a majority of Congresspeople but Clinton won, may have no qualms about supporting Trump anyway. Although a smattering of anti-Trump Republicans might theoretically shift a few state delegations from Trump to Clinton – Colorado could be flipped by Rep. Mike Coffman, for example, or Florida could be shifted by anti-Trump Republican Reps. Jolly, Rooney, Curbelo, and Ros-Lehtinen – it seems likely that House delegations would select Trump with something like a 30-20 vote. It’s possible that we might see a different result, as the House of Representatives hasn’t chosen a president since 1824. The process in the modern era might involve a barrage of phone calls, tweets, and emails directed at Congress, as well as other public demonstrations. As interesting as that might be, it seems unlikely that the House would break from the hyper-partisanship that characterizes our current political system to select the candidate of another party.

Under a slightly different hypothetical system, which I’ll call the top-two proportional electoral vote, only the top two vote-getters in each state are eligible to receive electoral votes. Under this system, Johnson, Stein, and McMullin are shut out, while Clinton receives 270 votes to Trump’s 268. Under this system, Clinton is elected president by a narrow margin. Although there would be some question as to the fairness of a method that intentionally shuts out third-party candidates, a case could be made for this method on the basis that without it, elections would be sent to the House of Representatives far too often. Indeed, under the first method of proportional allocation, where third-party candidates can receive electoral votes, four of the last seven presidential elections would have been sent to the House of Representatives: 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2016. These elections being sent to the House of Representatives could have handed Bob Dole a victory in 1996, despite receiving only 40.7% of the vote to Bill Clinton’s 49.2%.

A top-two proportional electoral vote system (or a similar system, like the hypothetical one outlined here by lawyer Jerry Sims) would undoubtedly be more responsive to the will of the people than the current winner-take-all system. Additionally, it would duck the problem of close elections with strong third-party candidates getting sent to the House of Representatives. Elections sent to the House would most likely be stunningly undemocratic given the horrendous gerrymandering in today’s congressional districts. Although such a system might still leave the presidency up to the House in extremely close elections, it would likely be easier to institute than a complete abolition of the Electoral College, which would require a constitutional amendment.

Another option would be completely disconnecting the Electoral College from state-by-state election results. One proposed method of doing this is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. All in all, it will be fascinating to see if and how the Electoral College system might change for future elections.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that under the hypothetical top-two proportional electoral vote system, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have tied with 269 votes apiece. This conclusion was based on faulty math involving Georgia, which, under the top-two system, would award 8 electoral votes to each candidate, bringing Hillary Clinton’s total to 270.

Here’s the mathematical breakdown/analysis of both of our hypothetical Electoral College systems.


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