Opinion writer

What an outrage: On Sunday, the National Football League awarded the Tennessee Titans a win over the Denver Broncos because they scored more points, even though the Broncos got more total yards than the Titans.

Of course, this is a ridiculous complaint — but not much more ridiculous than the gripes we’re hearing about the fact that Donald Trump is president-elect even though Hillary Clinton got 48.2 percent of the total votes cast vs. 46.1 percent for Trump.

Her 2.8 million popular-vote margin is one of the largest for the electoral-college loser in American history, or will be, once the electoral votes are officially cast on Monday. Still, it is fallacious to invoke this statistical byproduct of Nov. 8 to question the legitimacy of Trump’s victory — as opposed to that victory’s desirability, which is questionable indeed.

As all concerned knew going in, the object of the presidential election game is to win the most electoral votes in what are essentially 51 state-level contests (the District included), just as the object of football is to score the most points. Gridiron teams would play differently under instructions to maximize yardage; candidates would campaign differently if maximizing national popular votes were the prime directive.

With criticism flying about the electoral college, here's what you need to know about our system for electing the president and why the "Hamilton electors" don't like it. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Aiming for 270 electoral votes out of 538, both Clinton and Trump focused on 13 swing states; Trump won that contest-within-a-contest by 816,000 votes.

Voters, too, behaved as they did based on the known rules. The popular vote reflects not only true preferences but also strategic voting (or abstention) by people in non-swing states, such as deep-blue California and deep-red Louisiana, who might have done something else in a direct-election scenario.

Take Texas, a red state Trump won by roughly 800,000 votes. His share in heavily Republican suburban counties lagged Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance by an average of eight percentage points; Clinton’s beat Obama’s by four, according to a data analysis by Sean Trende, senior election analyst for RealClearPolitics. Meanwhile, exit polling showed Trump beating Clinton by 13 points in a hypothetical two-way race, as opposed to the nine he won by in real life.

To Trende, this implies a lot of abstention or third-party voting by Republicans who were uncomfortable with Trump but might have swallowed their doubts if Clinton had a better chance to get the state’s 38 electoral votes — or win in a direct national election.

Who knows? Maybe Clinton’s 4.3 million-vote edge in California would have been smaller if turnout weren’t affected by a factor unique to that state: multiple progressive-minded referenda, including marijuana legalization and parole reform.

There’s no use multiplying hypotheticals. While the Clinton popular-vote edge is so large it might represent what would have happened in a direct election, we can never be sure of that.

This is not to validate the electoral college per se. To the contrary, 2016 reinforces long-standing concerns about the democratic adequacy of U.S. presidential elections.

What critics of the electoral college need to acknowledge, however, is that changing that one rule would bring many more changes along with it, some anticipated and welcome, some neither.

Another sports analogy: College basketball introduced the three-point shot in 1986, vaguely intending to make the game more exciting and fairer, by rewarding difficult shots — and making it likelier that games could be decided or sent into overtime at the buzzer. Sharp-shooting small schools could beat powerhouses loaded with NBA-bound 7-footers.

“The 3” accomplished those goals — and replaced balletic maneuvering for inside shots with often sloppy, boring series of passes around the perimeter until someone takes, and usually misses, a long jumper. And then there are those thrilling pauses to check video of whether a shooter was standing on or beyond the three-point line.

If we elect the president by popular vote, would it increase voters’ sense of engagement — or alienate them as candidates used more national media and less state-level retail politicking?

Would federal policy tilt in favor of vote-rich metropolitan areas, dooming wasteful farm subsidies — but increasing wasteful “urban development” aid?

We could presumably not conduct a national popular vote under the 50-state patchwork of election laws that controls presidential contests now. Ballots cast under different legal rules (for registration, early voting, voter ID, recounts and the like) would not be sufficiently equivalent.

This, in turn, would require nationalized election law, at least for choosing the president and vice president, a complex legislative undertaking that could spawn equally complex litigation both before and after it took effect.

None of this proves a direct popular vote would be better or worse than the existing system — just that it would be a whole new ballgame.

As for the game we have now, Clinton lost, and the sooner people accept that, the sooner they can move on to the task of limiting the damage Trump might do in office.

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