The United States has faced this conflict between the electoral college and the popular vote only four times in the nation’s history (five, if you include John Quincy Adams’s election). But it’s happening more and more often.
Here’s why the electoral college’s results are, increasingly, diverging from the results of the popular vote.
The electoral college is designed to favor sparsely populated areas. It was created to strengthen the agrarian elite, offer more federal power to slaveholding states, and counterbalance factionalism and polarization.
But it’s not doing any of this today. Rather, the electoral college values some votes above others, while entirely disenfranchising the 4 million Americans who live in overseas territories.
Every election system has to balance such goals as proportionality, stability and accountability. Elections need to legitimately translate votes into winners; winning parties need to be able to govern effectively; and elected officials need to be accountable to voters.
The United States uses a simple system that is easy to understand, that helps keep the government stable, and that keeps officials accountable to the citizens who elect them. But the results are not proportional to the population. Nationally, parties often fail to win office in the same proportion that they win votes.
U.S. elections are winner-take-all events. Presidential elections use an indirect, majoritarian system. Winners need a majority of votes within the college, but not necessarily a majority of the people’s votes. In theory, this system brings stable leadership, moderate politics and coherent opposition.
Why should this keep politics moderate? First-past-the-post elections, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, usually produce two-party systems with big-tent parties, pushing extremists to the margins. Larger parties tend to be centrist, needing to appeal to a wider segment of the population to earn votes — although it doesn’t always work that way.
In practice, the electoral college disenfranchises voters in more populous areas and overseas
The electoral college distorts the popular vote, because small states get more votes than populous states. Each state has the same number of votes in the EC as it has representatives in Congress. Sparsely populated states have a minimum of two Senate seats and one House district, so they have at least three votes. The most populated states have a ceiling, since the number of seats in the House of Representatives does not increase.
That means that even the least populous state — Wyoming, with 586,107 residents — gets three electoral college votes. How disproportionate is that? Consider that California, the most populous state, has 39,144,818 residents and 55 electoral college votes.
That means that in the electoral college, each individual Wyoming vote weighs 3.6 times more than an individual Californian’s vote. That’s the most extreme example, but if you average the 10 most populous states and compare the power of their residents’ votes to those of the 10 least populous states, you get a ratio of 1 to 2.5.
When the electoral college was first instituted, the ratio of vote weight from state to state was much smaller. Direct parallels are difficult to draw, given the distortions in population caused by the three-fifths compromise and the fact that many residents were not able to vote. But in the election of 1792, residents of Delaware, the least-populous state, had a vote that weighed 1.6 times that of residents of Virginia.
Why is the ratio now so much more distorted? It’s because Americans are, increasingly and rapidly, moving into big cities. According to the Census Bureau, urban populations increased 12 percent between 2000 and 2010. Cities are growing especially in the biggest states, where each individual vote means the least: in California, New York, North Carolina, Illinois and New Jersey.
And it means the residents of the increasingly sparsely populated Southern and Midwestern states have electoral college votes that are growing in power.
That distortion will be even greater in the 2020 presidential election. Most voters’ votes will increasingly count for less. Or to put it more clearly, the electoral college devalues most American votes.
It also disenfranchises millions. U.S. citizens and nationals in overseas territories that have no congressional representatives have no vote in the presidential election. Roughly 4 million Americans live in the United States’ five permanently populated overseas territories — and they have no voice in selecting a president. That includes Puerto Rico, the United States’ most populous overseas territory, whose population is larger than that of 21 states and the District of Columbia. (D.C., with 658,893 residents, has three electoral college votes, despite its lack of congressional representation.)
The U.S. presidential election system has a legitimacy crisis
In 2000, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in the national popular vote for president — although he did so with less than a majority, gaining 48.4 percent of votes cast. And yet Bush won 271 electoral votes, while Gore won 266.
This year, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the popular vote — although once again, neither won a majority.
The electoral college was designed to help knit highly varied and independent states into a union. It guarantees legitimacy by ensuring that the president receives a majority of some body’s votes.
But it now distorts the popular vote in a way that disproportionately rewards those who live in scarcely populated areas, and it disenfranchises millions.
More and more, the United States is likely to elect presidents who haven’t won the popular vote — awarding the presidency to a party that has no popular mandate. The compromises behind the U.S. election system are failing at their goals.
Katy Collin has a PhD in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. Her research focuses on the use of referendums in peace processes.