The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats calling to abolish the electoral college should not be surprising

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks to a group of about 400 potential voters at a high school in Memphis. (Adrian Sainz/AP)

During a town hall event in Mississippi that aired Monday night on CNN, one of the biggest applause lines for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came from a comment about the electoral college.

“You know, come a general election, presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi. They also don’t come to places like California and Massachusetts, right? Because we’re not the ‘battleground states,’ " Warren said. “Well, my view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means get rid of the electoral college, and everybody counts. Everybody. I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote.”

We’ve left out the multiple points at which she was interrupted by enthusiastic clapping.

Warren’s right, of course. According to the National Journal’s tracker of candidate travel during 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made 178 trips to 24 states from Aug. 1 to Election Day. Only six states hosted 111 of those visits: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

It’s certainly fair to wonder whether a national popular vote would ameliorate that problem. Defenders of the electoral college system argue that it mandates visits to states like those above that might otherwise be overlooked. Of course, that Trump and Clinton made a combined two trips to Texas and California in the closing months of the 2016 campaign, two of the most populous states in the country, suggests that the imbalance is simply being shifted. It’s also not the case that candidates in states dominated by large cities such as in California and New York see gubernatorial races that are centered only in those cities.

That debate aside, there’s certainly no reason to be surprised that Warren would call for the electoral college system to be thrown out.

There have been four elections since 1860 in which the electoral vote has given the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote: 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has pointed out, Republicans have won the popular vote only once in her lifetime but have held the White House for 10 years.

In each of those four elections where the popular vote winner lost the electoral vote, the losing candidate was a Democrat.

Trump has celebrated his electoral vote win as a “landslide” and something that was not expected, given Democratic advantages in the electoral college. He said it earlier this month, in fact.

The investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and Russia was “done and stated by the Democrats because they lost an election that they should have won because the electoral college is a big advantage for Democrats, not for Republicans,” he claimed. “And they should have, and I ran the clock out. We ran the whole thing. You ran up the East Coast from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, and then we go up to Wisconsin and Michigan — states that hadn’t been won for many, many years. We won those states.”

As the graph above shows, Trump’s win was hardly a landslide. The electoral vote margin is often much larger than the popular vote margin, since electoral votes are winner-take-all. As for the idea that Democrats have an advantage in the electoral college? We’ll come back to that.

Another reason that Warren’s support for eliminating the electoral college isn’t surprising is that it’s popular.

A number of polls have looked at the question since the 2016 election. Some simply ask respondents which they prefer, electing a president by popular vote or through use of the electoral college. Others ask whether respondents would support changing the Constitution to eliminate the electoral college.

The latter question tends to generate responses that are closer to a 50-50 split, suggesting that people are wary of eliminating the electoral college itself. Asked which method they prefer, though, and most people say they prefer a popularly elected president.

Implementing a national popular vote to determine the president, though, doesn’t necessarily mean amending the Constitution. A number of states have passed laws that would move toward a compact where their electoral votes would go to the popular-vote winner. If enough states join, such that they collectively have more than half of the electoral votes, the laws would kick in — and the winner of the presidential election would simply be the popular-vote winner.

As it stands, the electoral college system gives much more weight to voters in certain states. In 2016, for example, every 85,000 Wyoming voters got an electoral vote, compared with every 328,000 Floridians. People in Warren’s Massachusetts had votes worth about a third as much as someone from Washington, D.C.

That inequity is compounded by the uneven distribution of votes. Blue states that voted for Clinton tend to be home to large cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Clinton ran up the vote in Los Angeles — but it did no good, since California was always safe for her, anyway.

In 2016, Democrats had more than 11 million wasted votes, votes above the margin needed in each state to carry it for Clinton. Republicans wasted about 8 million. But the Democrats wasted about 500,000 fewer votes than they did in 2012, a year when they won both the presidency and a majority in the national popular vote.

Move 78,000 of those votes — 0.7 percent of them — to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Clinton is the president. Trump’s presidency is, in one sense, a function of random geographic lines.

We can look at this another way. Clinton ended up getting more votes overall than Barack Obama did four years earlier. The problem was that those increases were often in states where she was already likely to win.

In states that Clinton won by more than 20 percentage points, she got an average of 6,500 more votes per county than Obama did in 2012, while Trump improved on Mitt Romney by 679. In states that she carried by 10 points or less, Trump did better than Romney by 163 votes on average in every county — but she did worse than Obama by more than 650.

Much of the debate over maintaining the electoral college comes down to an argument about the will of the Founding Fathers in establishing it in the first place, a debate that is best left to historians. It’s certainly not the case, though, that every decision they made has been left intact out of deference to their wisdom.

That Warren herself can vote is a testament to that.