Although Donald Trump says little that I agree with, I do agree with him that the “Clinton won the popular vote by 2 million” argument is a red herring. Trump and Clinton both would have run very different campaigns if the election were to be decided by raw popular vote. 

Trump ignored California because he had no prayer of winning the state, but he could and surely would have stumped the Central Valley and the rural northern part of the state for votes were the rules different. Ditto upstate New York. Clinton ignored any number of red states where many votes were to be had but not enough to carry the state. And putting aside the question of campaign tactics, how many people didn’t bother to vote because their vote couldn’t possibly affect the outcome in their state? There’s no way to know what the popular vote totals would have been or which candidate would have prevailed in an election run under very different rules. 

Nowadays most presidential winners don’t receive a majority of the popular vote, merely a plurality, and in many countries which elect their head of state by raw popular vote, there is a runoff if no one receives a majority. This is also the rule in some states, witness the pending runoff for a senate seat in Louisiana. Finishing second in the first round is no guarantee of losing in the second round — remember Robert Mugabe a few years ago? There is no telling who would have won a runoff between Clinton and Trump.

If the Electoral College places too much power in the hands of the “states” at the expense of the “people,” I see this less as a structural problem with the Electoral College and more as a problem with the interrelationship of the Senate and House. The fundamental unit of government in the U.S. is not the nation, it is the state. We are the united “states.” 

The Constitution takes great pains to safeguard the interests of the states. While the House of Representatives today basically embodies a one-person, one-vote principle, the Senate embodies a one-state, one-vote principle. The idea that all states are created equal, no matter how large or small, how populous or how old, is entrenched in the Constitution. So while representatives are expected to advocate for and protect the interests of the populace that elected them, senators are expected to advocate for and protect the interests of the state that elected them.

The Electoral College is a hybrid of the two principles — a combination of one-person, one-vote and one-state, one-vote. The emphasis on the state as opposed to the populace has been watered down to some extent over time. For example, senators originally were elected by a state’s legislature, not directly by the people. And since these structures come from a time when wealth and power derived from immovable land rather than from freely movable intellectual capital and financial assets, perhaps they could use further democratization. 

One could view the Electoral College as a horse designed by a committee, but before we embrace a different approach, we should remember the law of unintended consequences: in a system as complicated as national elections, unanticipated problems and seemingly bizarre results will occur.

In summary, I suggest there’s little merit in fretting that Hillary got more votes because there’s no assurance she would have received more votes under different election rules. But there may be merit to giving more voice to the popular vote and less to state interests. 

Here’s a thought: elect the president by popular vote, provided that a candidate receives a majority of votes cast. If no candidate receives a majority, instead of a runoff, use the Electoral College. This would surely make campaign strategy interesting, and it would retain a role for the states when the popular will is too divided to produce a clear winner. (It would also ramp up voter fraud allegations, of course, since every vote in every state would now be of importance — the law of unintended consequences at work.) 

And if this strikes you as a horse designed by a committee — nope, I created this horse all by myself.

Bob Stigger is a longtime resident of Oak Park.

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