A lot has been written in the last week about the Electoral College, which will vote on 19 December to formally elect the next president of the United States.
There is no doubt that, by due process of law, as the Constitution prescribes it and as we have practiced it in every election since our founding, Donald Trump has the votes in the Electoral College to win the presidency.
Assuming he wins the 19 December vote, he will be the fourth president in our history to win the Electoral College vote without winning the popular vote.
I won’t spend a lot of time here on why the Framers of the Constitution endowed us with the Electoral College. The most important reason was to bolster federalism; that is, balance the power of the states with that of the federal government.
The Electoral College is a mechanism, and balancing the power is a means to an end. The end itself is protecting minorities against majorities. A majority of 50.1% is not necessarily very much to have to get. 50.1% can often be achieved on a temporary basis.
But if democracy operates unfettered, a minority of 49.9% is still a minority. If everything is decided by majority vote, that can be a lot of people left unprotected. A lot of things voters will later regret can be implemented. And good luck to minorities of 35%, or 25%, or 15%.
The Framers wanted to make it hard for the federal government to alter the status quo very much. Policy ideas that would coerce the people needed to win widespread and enduring majorities throughout the nation, as opposed to supermajorities in a few population centers.
In any case, the Framers did not envision the federal government doing a good 90% of what it does today. If they even saw the kinds of government activity we now take for granted as appropriate, they assumed that states, counties, and cities would be the ones involved in them.
In recent decades, the Electoral College has served to solidify the political credibility of presidents who were elected with less than 50% of the popular vote, including John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton (in both of his elections). It is by no means an institution structurally biased against Democrats.
But Democrats are now pushing variously to abolish the Electoral College, and even to circumvent its purpose right now, for this election, by pressuring the electors to contravene their states’ popular votes, so as to prevent Trump from getting the more-than-sufficient 290 electoral votes he is already assured by the current vote count.
In that context, it is very interesting to look at the 2016 vote through the prism of how it is distributed.
First, there’s no question that the vote means America is profoundly divided. As of today, the popular vote total is something over 127,964,000. (Exact figures can’t be fully determined, and that one includes only the five candidates who got the most votes, including Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin. My count right now based on Politico’s numbers is 127,964,538. The numbers used in the discussion below are from Politico.)
Hillary Clinton, with 61,324,576 votes as of 16 November, has 47.9% of the popular vote.
Donald Trump, with 60,526,852 votes, has 47.3% of the popular vote.
The difference between them is 797,724 votes. That is a not-inconsiderable number of votes; the difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 was less, at 543,895 (according to Wikipedia). Most of us would envision nearly 800,000 votes as representing the entire vote of many a city, and even of a number of our states.
But 797,724 is also only 0.6% of the total popular vote. And here’s where it gets interesting.
Quite a few commentators have pointed out, as the Wall Street Journal did on Tuesday, that California alone accounts for Hillary’s entire lead in the popular vote.
And that’s true. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Los Angeles County alone accounts for Hillary’s lead in the popular vote.
The reason this is so instructive is that LA County, by itself, didn’t deliver California for Hillary. Take away her votes in LA County, and she’d still have a lead in California.
But she would no longer have a lead in the national popular vote.
Hillary has a lead over Trump of 1,076,074 votes in LA County. That’s because she’s got 71.5% of the votes cast there.
If we removed the LA County vote from both candidates in the national total, and left the rest of the California vote in place, Trump would lead Hillary right now nationally, with 60,001,544 to her 59,723,194.
That’s about as regionally specialized as narrow majorities get. There’s one other county in the nation that delivered a vote advantage for Hillary of more than 797,724, and that’s Cook County, Illinois. (The vote there, still incomplete, has Hillary with a lead of 1,088,369 over Trump, representing 74.4% of the vote.)
New York City as a whole, of course – which encompasses more than one county – also gave Hillary a combined lead of more than her national advantage in the popular vote.
A lopsided vote in an urban behemoth like Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New York is simply not indicative of widespread national support for a candidate or her policies.
The red-blue map of America, whether displayed by state or by county, shows the real truth that we are divided – which is also reflected in the popular vote totals. Within California, and within Illinois and New York, the people’s sentiments are also clearly divided.
The urban behemoths in those states outweigh their more rural counties and towns. But by what political philosophy should they outweigh the votes of millions of people in other states? That there is such a philosophy — that of majoritarian democracy — does not mean that it is a wise philosophy, or that we should reject our own founding philosophy in favor of it.
Even within Los Angeles County, there are significant divisions. The massive urban concentration in the south went much more heavily for Hillary. There are precincts in the north where the majority of voters went for Trump.
Before we go abolishing the Electoral College, advocates of that course need to explain why the voters of Los Angeles County, whose sentiments skew so differently from the rest of the nation, should decide our presidential outcomes for us. The Framers saw this as a flawed and dangerous approach, one that would lead America down the path of ancient Athens: through wild swings between irresponsible majoritarianism and tyrannical periods of “correction.” Given the record of our own biggest cities in the last half century, I am inclined to agree with them.