Changes to First Past the Post style Electoral College increase chances of Trump victory

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 26th March 2024

Barring an act of God, 5 November 2024 will see a rematch of the 2020 US Presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Looking back at the nationwide result in 2020, you would be forgiven for thinking that Biden secured a relatively comfortable victory, winning 7 million more votes than Trump. Biden won over half the votes cast (51.3%), finishing 4.4 percentage points ahead of Trump (46.9%).

However, unlike almost all other Presidential elections throughout the world, the US President is not elected via the popular vote. If they were, then Donald Trump would never have taken office. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received around 3 million more votes than Trump (48.0% to 45.9%).

How did Trump become President without ever winning the popular vote? The answer is the Electoral College (EC).

The First Past the Post style Electoral College

Each state (and the District of Columbia) is allocated a number of EC votes, roughly in proportion to their population. The number of EC votes varies from 54 for California to three each for Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. In order to become President, a candidate needs to reach 270 EC votes.

Almost every state applies a winner-takes-all approach to allocating their EC votes, which means, just like in First Past the Post, winning a state by a wide margin is of no extra benefit to a candidate than winning it by a narrow margin. Take the 2020 results from the two most populous states, California (55 Electoral College votes) and Texas (38 Electoral College votes). Biden won California by a margin of 5.1 million votes (63.5% to 34.3%), whereas Trump won Texas by a much smaller 631,000 votes (52.1% to 46.5%). However, no differentiation is made, the winner takes all of the EC votes in each state.

In 2020, Biden secured 306 EC votes to 232 EC votes for Trump (based on how the public voted on election day). Again, on paper, this looks like a fairly comfortable EC victory for Biden, but digging deeper into the state-by-state votes shows this was far from the case.

The three closest results were in states won by Biden by less than one percentage point – Wisconsin (Biden’s majority = 20,682); Georgia (12,670); and Arizona (10,457). In order for Trump to become President again in 2024, all he has to do is flip these three states, which in 2020 had a combined Biden majority of just 43,809 votes. A drop in the ocean compared to the 7 million majority Biden enjoyed nationwide.

Changes to the number of Electoral College votes each state has

Winning these three states would give Trump an extra 37 EC votes. Added to the 232 EC votes he won in 2020, this would put him on 269 EC votes, still one short of an outright victory. However, the number of votes each state has is partially based on their populations. Due to population changes in the 2020 US Census, the number of EC votes assigned to each state has changed. Victory in these three states, plus the states he won in 2020, would put Trump across the winning line on 272 EC votes.

First Past the Post means millions of votes don’t matter

The Electoral College shares similar drawbacks to our winner-takes-all First Past The Post (FPTP) system used at UK general elections. Both create ‘safe’ seats, where everyone knows who is going to win before a single vote has been cast, meaning voters in these places are taken for granted. Candidates can pile up votes in these ‘safe’ seats, for no extra benefit, for example, of the ten largest majorities at the 2019 UK general election, nine were in urban, Labour-held seats in London and Merseyside.

They can both cause ‘wrong winner’ elections, for example neither Al Gore or Hilary Clinton became President, despite getting more votes than their opponents (George W Bush and Trump) in 2000 and 2016 respectively. While in the UK, in 1951, Labour got more votes than the Conservatives but the Tories won more seats. In February 1974, the position was reversed, with the Conservatives winning more votes but Labour gaining a higher number of seats.

It looks increasingly likely that the next UK general election will be held in the autumn of 2024, around the same time as the US Presidential election. Within a matter of weeks we will witness national elections held under electoral systems that are prone to producing random and volatile results. With such important issues at stake in both countries, the details of electoral systems really do matter. Voters deserve to have their votes properly represented.

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