How Trump could win the Presidency even if he doesn’t win the most votes

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 8th November 2016

It’s election day in the United States, and that means all the pageantry and spectacle one comes to expect with democracy in the world’s most powerful nation.

The spectacle of a US election also reminds us of the way the US elects its presidents: an electoral college elected state by state. Each state gets a number of Electoral Votes equivalent to their congressional representation – the number of house seats plus two for the Senate (DC, not a state, gets 3 electors). Most award all their EVs to whoever wins the most votes in the state. So if in Florida, a candidate gets 48% of the vote and another gets 47%, the one with 48% wins all 29 electoral votes. (Although Maine and Nebraska use a slightly different system to award their EVs.)

And the electoral college results in some odd effects. Like safe seats in the UK, some states can be deemed safe and therefore be ignored – so strongly Democratic California, with 12% of the population of the US, earns less campaigning attention from Presidential candidates than far less safe Iowa, with just shy of 1%.

One of its effects is also that Presidents can win the electoral vote even if they do not win the most electors’ votes. This famously happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the electoral vote. But it also happened in the elections of 1824, 1876 and 1888.

The possibility can once again not be ruled out this time. In fact, when you look at the US polls, it can be easily seen that Trump could win the Presidency even if he doesn’t win the popular vote.

The reason is simple: it doesn’t matter under winner-takes-all systems like First Past the Post, or the electoral college, how much you win a constituency or state by. If you win 80% of the vote in a state or 50% you still get the name number of electoral votes – all that matters is winning the most votes in that state.

That means any vote cast in a state that is lost is wasted – it doesn’t count towards the overall result, whereas votes that are above the point you need to win are also wasted. The most effective strategy then is to lose big, win small. Requires explanation, eg win by ‘just enough’ in as many states as possible etc. This time around it seems likelier that Trump might benefit from this.

Why? Because the demographics that favour Clinton, such as Hispanic voters, are more common in safe states. So this year polls suggest that California might be won by 20 or 25 percent, whereas Texas, the biggest ‘red state’ but one with a very large Hispanic population has seen comparatively small leads for Trump of around 9%. Hence, in both these states, it is Trump who is winning small and losing big.

In the UK this problem exists too – and it is a leading cause in the fact that for many years there existed an electoral bias in the boundaries towards Labour. As of the 2015 election the ‘efficiency bias’, as this effect is known, now benefits the Conservatives, but in both the US and UK cases it is a product of an electoral system designed for a different age now having become inappropriate for the modern world.

Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the chances of a ‘wrong winner’ election in the US. Famed election forecaster Nate Silver estimates the chances of Trump losing the popular vote but winning the Presidency at 10.3%, with a 0.5% chance of the same situation happening for Hillary. Nonetheless, this should be impossible under most understandings of democracy. As noted, it has happened before and at some point will surely happen again as long as the electoral college is in use.

Because in this year of all years, it is important that the result is imbued with legitimacy and trust. The electoral college puts that at risk.

The most preferable way to do so would be to use a system which guarantees that the President be elected with a majority of popular support, such as the Alternative Vote, or even the Two Round System used to elect Presidents in most countries which directly elect the office.

But given the difficulties of amending the US constitution, the best way forward for the time being is easily the ‘National Popular Vote Interstate Compact’ backed by our friends at FairVote, in which US states representing a majority of the electoral college award their EVs to the national popular vote winner, essentially turning the election into a national contest for who can win the most votes.

It’s time to end the spectacle of elections where someone can win outright even if they are not the most popular option – whether in the US or the UK. Whatever the result today, it’s time for reform. 

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