Monday, November 05, 2012

How a Candidate Could Win the Popular Vote but Lose the Elections

I come neither to praise the Electoral College nor to bury it. I come to explain it. I get this question about the popular vote versus the Electoral College because, really, it makes no sense. In a democratic system, how could someone get more votes than another person but still lose? The simple reason is that the United States is not, contrary to popular belief, a true democracy. It is a democratic republic where citizen representation is based on a carefully crafted balance of federal and state rights.

The Electoral College is an important element of this balance, along with things like, well, the Senate.  It exists because the founding fathers believed that the best way to protect citizen rights is to both protect the rights and enhance the power of state governments. The way it works is that the states, not individuals, choose their candidates for President, and have as many votes as they have representatives in the House and Senate total. This approach was taken because state governments were seen as closer to the people and perhaps more understanding of the unique needs of that state. In addition, focusing the power to elect the president at the state level rather than on population gives states with smaller populations a slightly more powerful voice.  

How does that work?  Let’s look at Wyoming.  With about 568,000 people, Wyoming houses about .18% (yes, that’s point 18) of the 312 million people in the United States.  Yet with three electoral votes, Wyoming has about .5% of the overall votes in the Electoral College. Sure, .18% and .5% don’t seem like a big deal.  But the Electoral College gives this state over 2X the power it would have had based on population.  By contrast, California, with 12% of the population has just over 10% of the total votes available in the Electoral College. The differences may seem slight, but the intent is clear – to ensure that states with smaller populations have a proportionally louder voice than they would otherwise have.
How does that translate into the “popular vote versus the Electoral College” brou-ha-ha?  Let’s look at a specific example.  

  • The state of California has approximately 37,692,000 residents and 55 electoral votes.  
  • The state of Texas has 25,675,000 and 38 electoral votes.  
  • If Romney were to win 19,000,000 of the 25,675,000 votes in Texas (not going to happen, but let’s just imagine), he’s win the popular vote in that state and the 38 electoral votes
  • If Obama were to win 18,900,000 of the popular vote in California, he’d win the popular vote in California and its 55 electoral votes.  
But look at the differential: Romney has 100,000 more votes than Obama, but has still lost in the Electoral College. While this particular scenario of CA and TX is unlikely, it is illustrative of the overall potential in the 50 states.
Love it or leave, that’s how the Electoral College works – or doesn’t.  So stay tuned for all the fun tomorrow night!

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