Did Your Vote Count?

Panel discusses workaround to Electoral College system

By Brian PJ Cronin

On Jan. 20 at noon, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the U.S., despite having won 2.9 million fewer votes than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He won more Electoral College votes, a measure of who received more votes in each state and D.C., and that’s what matters. The presidential candidate who did not win the popular vote has only taken office five times before, most recently in 2000 and prior to that three times in the 19th century.

Sandy Galef, a Democratic member of the state Assembly whose district includes Philipstown, said her office was flooded with calls, letters and emails following the Nov. 8 election from constituents asking how Trump could win despite receiving fewer votes than Clinton.

In response, Galef convened a panel on Jan. 12 at the Croton Free Library to discuss the Electoral College and possible changes. Her guests were Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who sponsored a state bill to reform the Electoral College; Hendrik Hertzberg, a longtime editor and writer at The New Yorker and board member of FairVote.org; and Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science and international science at Iona College.

Jeffrey Dinowitz, a member of the state Assembly who introduced legislation to reform the Electoral College, speaks at a forum held Jan. 12. (Photo provided)

In the Electoral College system, the number of electors for each state is determined by its population. It is designed so that an individual vote in a smaller state counts more in proportion to an individual vote in a larger state. This means, Hertzberg noted, that a vote in Wyoming counts about 50 to 60 times more than a vote in California, since the state’s small population makes each person’s vote more significant in the statewide tally. That tally determines which candidates receive the state’s electoral votes.

“As political scientists, we ask ourselves what makes for a democratic election?” asked Zaino. “And one of those things is that everyone’s vote should count equally. In our system, that’s not the case.”

Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it ensures that rural and less populated states and sections of the country are not left out of the campaign. If the popular vote determined the election, candidates would simply campaign in major cities to reach as many people as possible.

However, members of the panel argued this reasoning is flawed.

“Mathematically, it’s impossible to win the presidency by just visiting urban areas,” said Zaino. “And it’s hard for those of us near New York City to realize that, because New York City is so much larger than any other city in the country.” While New York City has more than 8 million people, the second most populous city, Los Angeles, has fewer than half that.

Instead of empowering rural states, the panel argued, the system empowers about 10 “battleground” states in which the polls predicting the popular vote are close enough to warrant candidates spend time and money there. That reduces the other 40 states to spectators.

“It’s not worth doing grassroots campaigning everywhere in the country,” said Hertzberg. “In New York state it doesn’t make sense to do a coffee klatch and invite your neighbors over and try to persuade them to vote for your candidate, because New York is a foregone conclusion [for the Democratic candidate].”

The Electoral College could only be dismantled with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would require approval by two-thirds of both U.S. House and Senate members and the legislatures in three-quarters of the states. But there is an easier way, the panel noted. Since it’s up to legislators in each state to determine which candidate’s electors get sent to the Electoral College — it could be based on the state’s popular vote, the national vote, a coin flip or anything the legislators agree to — each state has the power to buck the system.

In response to this, legislators in many states have introduced bills to create a National Popular Vote Act, which would work as an interstate compact. Every state that passes the act would agree to send electors who represent the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who won the electoral vote in that state.

To date, states that represent a total 165 electoral votes, including New York and New Jersey, have passed the act, and it is under consideration in five others. The goal is to have states on board that represent a total of more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. However, election analyst Nate Silver has pointed out that no states that consistently vote Republican have adopted the plan, and a traditional swing state seems unlikely to agree to anything that would reduce its influence.

Zaino noted that if the act went into effect and a presidential candidate who won the electoral vote but not the popular vote was kept from office, he or she would almost certainly mount a legal challenge that would end up with the U.S. Supreme Court. But the panel agreed that for those who see a need for reform, the act may be the most effective way to enact change before the 2020 vote.

27 thoughts on “Did Your Vote Count?

  1. Another instance of Democratic liberals trying to find a complicated, contorted solution prone to legal challenges to a problem that rarely exists. In the 140 years, four instances occurred wherein the electoral college determined the winner, for an average of one every 35 years or so. Not surprising, 10 blue states, including California and New York, and some coastal states won by Hillary Clinton, have signed on to a compact of states, which itself is open to legal challenge. Imperfect as it may appear to the losers, the remedy prescribed would be a great deal worse.

  2. I did not attend this meeting. Just as well. It’s rubbish. These experts clearly know nothing, by design, of the facts.

    The National Popular Vote Act is without a sliver of a doubt unconstitutional. At a very minimum, and this is admitted, it is unlikely and therefore impractical. It is not a solution toward the ideal of popular democracy; it is a distraction.

    The number of votes a state receives in the Electoral College is equal to the number of its Representatives in the House plus the number of its Senators. For example, New York receives 29 votes in the Electoral College, one for each of its Representatives (totaling 27) plus one for each of its Senators (an additional 2).

    But the total number of Representatives in the House, the “size of the House,” was fixed in 1910 and has not increased since that year. The purpose was anti-democratic. There was a need apparently to fight democracy at that time. The size of the House until 1910 had increased every 10 years in accordance with increases in the population. In 1910 each member of the House represented, roughly, and on average, 210,000 people in their district. In 2016 each member represents roughly 710,000 people. In 1910 the population of the U.S. was about 92 million. In 2016 the population is about 322 million, or more than three times larger.

    The more populous states lose power relative to the less populous states when the size of the House is fixed. i.e., when it fails to increase as the population has increased. Power is lost not only in the Electoral College every four years but every single day when Congress meets.

    The power to fix this problem, this deficiency, one could term it an abomination, is not limited by the Constitution. It does not even require an Act of Congress. It is solely at the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives — see Article 1 Sections 2, 4, and 5.

    The above is for clarification and informational purposes. I do not necessarily recommend any specific change not do I mean to imply all problems are solved by a single, solitary act or change. To say otherwise would be simplistic and foolish.

    • I should have noted, to be more clear: the larger the size of the House (i.e., the greater the total number of Representatives in the House) the more closely the Electoral Vote of each state would reflect the size of its population, and therefore its popular vote in presidential elections, relative to all other states; and respectively, the total of all the Electoral Votes would more closely reflect the popular vote of all the states collectively. The reason for this is that the effect of the Senatorial contribution, which is not based upon population, to the Electoral Vote of each state would be minimized relative to the contribution from number equal to the size of each state’s delegation in the House of Representatives, which is based upon population.

    • Mr. Haggerty judges the proposed National Popular Vote Act too harshly, and with nothing to back his claim that it would be ruled unconstitutional. Let’s consider, too, the implications of his math. If the number of representatives were to increase in proportion to population growth, the House today would have 1,470 congressmen (assuming each represented 210,000 people). It is possible that Congress acted in 1910 to set the cap because they had thought through the implications, and settled on a wise compromise.

      I did not attend this event, but the astounding disparity in voting power outlined in the article should trouble all fair-minded people. The small states will not vote against their self-interest (if you lived in Wyoming, would you?). Since one of the precious rights of states is to determine how electoral votes are allocated, is it not reasonable that we make use of that to avoid the disgrace of future elections being won by a minority of voters?

      • It is true I have strongly and harshly criticized the National Popular Vote Act. Probably my criticism of this Act, as well as of the “experts” discussing this option at this meeting would have been far less severe were it the case that other, evident and plausible, alternatives, remedies and mitigations to the issue of a national popular vote, including, of course, the one I favor, had been mentioned and discussed.

        I should add that it is my strong impression that some form of party and/or factional “group think,” resulting in a consistent “party line” message, so to speak, resulting from an uncritical and unsavory consumption of the products of well-funded, specialist, politically directed “think tanks,” each likely themselves having their own mysterious hidden agendas, has created or is trying to create the impression that the National Popular Vote Act is the only road to be taken here.

        • I am less critical of group think than Mr. Haggerty, and believe that groups that respect and encourage the expression of diverse views, and have many different kinds of people, can outperform armchair theorists.

          The country has become entangled in its machinery of governance. The National Popular Vote Act is, in my view and after considering a wide range of alternatives, including those proposed by Mr. Haggerty, a reasonable next step.

          The country must find a way forward. Part of that will be re-establishing the importance of truth and accuracy in public discourse, and part of that will be re-learning how to argue with each other.

          • I would strongly suggest you have confused “group think,” which is a defined term, to quote Webster’s New World College Dictionary, with a condition something along the lines of “the thinking of different kinds of people, with diverse views, while these people are in groups.”

            Webster defines Group Think as “the tendency of members of a profession, committee, etc., to conform to those opinions or feelings prevailing in their group.”

            Assuming the definition I quoted is acceptable, I have to say I do not understand the meaning or the intent of your first paragraph.

            I would be interested to learn more of what “re-learning how to argue with each other” might mean. Certainly arguments involve disagreements, differences, etc. But in cases of “group think,” disagreements are discouraged, while conformity is encouraged.

  3. People should be thinking about this issue from another angle.

    “In New York State it doesn’t make sense to do a coffee klatch and invite your neighbors over and try to persuade them to vote for your candidate, because New York is a foregone conclusion [for the Democratic candidate].”

    This is why proportional representation should be pushed nationwide, so that major urban areas like New York City wouldn’t make New York State a forgone conclusion. The 29 electoral votes could be distributed by zones, counties, etc. The same could be said for California, Texas and Florida.

    • The best discussion I have read of the issue of popular vote versus the Electoral College can be found at Fairvote.org. (See the Frequently Asked Questions) You’ll have to spend some time reading the arguments carefully, but the effort is worth it: if we have many more elections like the one we just had, the consent of the governed may be withheld.

    • Certainly the states of Maine and Nebraska today award their Electoral Votes by congressional district. If more states did this it would certainly be more interesting and might help increase wider participation by presidential candidates in those states, particularly the larger ones.

      In the very distant past several states, including I think New York, awarded their Electoral Votes by congressional district. That was before the rise of and the consolidation of power by the modern two-party system, which is characterized by nationwide factionalism.

  4. Unfortunately, even two months after the election and an inauguration, some posters cannot accept the results that one of the unpopular candidates won. Thirty states gave their consent and voted for Donald Trump; 20 did not. Neither recounts, alleged Russian hacking into the DNC, scurrilous video revelations or media bias changed that result. The fault lies not in the system but in the users of the system who made erroneous assumptions and decisions that ultimately resulted in their loss. The fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

    • It is possible to accept the result of the 2016 election in the sense that we agree that it is consistent with the rules as they stand, while lamenting the fact that the rules as they stand run contrary to our shared ideals of democracy. The new president’s own lying about immigrants casting illegal votes in the millions (to counter the plain truth that almost 3 million fewer people voted for him than for Hillary Clinton) should tell us that at some level we all buy in to an ideal of democracy that says the popular vote best represents the will of the people. We are all troubled by this result, even Donald Trump.

      Ms. Fanizzi’s dismissive comment that the popular vote rarely goes against the Electoral College tally ignores recent history. Two of the past five presidential elections have had popular votes go against the Electoral College vote. A third, in 2004, was a close call: Kerry barely lost Ohio, but had he won, Bush would have lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. The Beacon of Democracy is becoming a laughingstock to the world. The Electoral College is an artifact of an age when states with slaves demanded that they get special credit (counting three fifths of each enslaved human being within their borders toward their population tally) as the price of joining the union, and when few people had an education, and few people lived in cities. We freed the slaves 150 years ago; education is widespread; the population is urbanized. Surely the efforts to rethink the Electoral College are owed at least a respectful hearing.

  5. There was a lapse of 112 years — from 1888 to 2000 — before the Electoral College trumped the popular vote. Additionally, while the contentious numerical issue of slaves was a factor, there were others that the Framers gave attention. There were many proposals before the Framers, the options considered and rejected and their final decision to adopt the procedures which were somewhat refined following elections of 1800 and 1824 but which have stood the test of time. Here is a summary by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

    • The high incidence of elections going or almost going contrary to the popular vote since 2000 may reflect a change in the composition of the electorate, and that going forward it would be reasonable to see the risk of the outcomes of 2000 and 2016 being repeated more often. It’s hard to ignore how controversial such outcomes are and how much damage they do to our faith that “the people have spoken” when a president is elected.

      The Electoral College may have stood the test of time, but the denial of the vote to women had, in 1910, “stood the test of time,” as had slavery in 1859.

  6. The Electoral College or a popular vote? That might be a time-consuming exercise in diversion. As long as the lobbying is being interpreted by court rulings as constitutionally-protected free speech, we never have a chance to change anything. I would much like to see a competitive third party.

    • Excellent comment and I largely agree with you. The stranglehold the two major national parties have, and have had on the system, characterized by a form of competitive power sharing perhaps best expressed by what is recently termed a duopoly, restricts the free speech of all those who may not be satisfied or comfortable fitting their views and interests easily into the tight boxes of policies and programs thusly offered.

      On the other hand, it should be noted that, even before the size of the House was fixed in relation to the fast-rising population, a process I maintain further restricts the opportunities for alternative voices such as those via third parties, enduring legislative and constitutional accomplishments of these parties had been decidedly mixed if not meager. The Liberty Party’s push for abolition famously led not to compromise and peaceful evolution in policy but instead, finally, to a Civil War. The Prohibition Party’s push for a national restriction on the consumption of alcohol famously led to a widespread defiance accompanied by gangsterism and an extreme level of political corruption, particularly at the level of the larger cities; finally to a complete reversal of the constitutional law after about 12 years of the experiment.

      The enduring accomplishments of the Greenback, the People’s (or Populist), the Socialist, and the Bull Moose (or Progressive) Parties, together with the States Rights Party under the leadership of Strom Thurmond and finally the American Independent Party under the leadership of George Wallace, are unclear to me, save undoubtedly the opportunity they offered for the expression of some of the political views of the day. The effort of the Reform Party under Ross Perot’s independent candidacy of 1992 however did lead to a policy change in the form of severe federal budget cutbacks and federal budget balancing efforts two years later following the 1994 midterm elections, results of which seemed to pick up where he left off.

      In my view the development of a “competitive” third party would be very interesting but I am not at all sure how it might in practice happen.

  7. Picking up from Ms. Szulc’s post, one of the great inequities in the voting system has been the lock of the two major parties. So much so that 27 percent of the registered voters of New York State who registered as unaffiliated or blank were denied the privilege of voting in the primaries, myself included. Rather than pursuing quixotic solutions for the Electoral College, perhaps energies would be better expended toward overturning this example of voter suppression on the local level and advocate for open primaries.

    • Richard Hofstadter wrote that “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.” Mr. Haggerty’s brief history of them in the 19th and early 20th centuries should be instructive, and, if you’re still not persuaded, consider what Ross Perot did to George HW Bush in 1992 and what Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in 2000. Vainglorious campaigns drew just enough votes to put in power someone who was furthest from the ideals the third party promoted.

      The arguments for open primaries, it seems to me, ignore the fact that the work at hand is to select the nominee of a party. If anyone can vote in a primary for the candidate of any party, regardless of their declared affiliation, what is to stop large numbers of people from crossing over to vote for the candidate for the opposing party’s nomination who is least likely to win? (This may have been one reason for Trump’s victories in some primaries.) Closed primaries allow the best candidate from each party to be chosen — that is, the candidate supported by the largest number of voters from their respective parties.

      The Electoral College has gotten this country into trouble many times, and not just in the rocky early decades of the Republic. The National Popular Vote Act offers a practical solution that does not depend on Red states to agree; avoids the nightmare of 1,500 and, in time, 2,000 congressmen shouting at each other; and would correct a system that regularly now awards victory unsupported by the popular will. As hard as it will be to reach the 270 minimum to take effect, what other proposals have a better likelihood of success?

      • Comment was made and the concern is valid over the effects of and the characteristics of a larger House of Representatives, as it has the potential to result in large numbers of Congresspersons arguing endlessly with, or shouting at each other, or worse. But is this sort of behavior not occurring today, both within governments as well as on the streets and elsewhere? Has it not periodically been the case in the past? It takes only two people of different minds to argue, perhaps only one. It depends more on the fractiousness of the issues and the mood of the times, as much as on numbers, I would think.

        Democracy, depending on how one defines it, can be a messy, noisy, unsatisfying, inefficient, ineffective, even dirty and despised process. I suppose a form of democracy may be described wherein a smaller number of voices are allowed, power is more concentrated in fewer actors, options and opportunities are more limited, yet “more things get done and more quickly,” in other words, a more constrained version than we have now; as much there could be a larger form wherein wider and greater participation and input occurs and is encouraged, power is less concentrated as it is spread out among larger numbers of actors, and consequently more time, effort and probably more money are required, and in a frustrating, tedious fashion “less gets done and very slowly”.

        I suggest it would be unwise if not hazardous to make a hasty judgment as to which form is better. I would suggest the answer each may give to this question depends much on just exactly what is getting done or not, by government, and whether that meets any one individual’s specific interests and desires. In other words one might be very satisfied one year and very dissatisfied in another, the size of the representative bodies and the level of concentration of power being largely transparent and uninteresting for most people in most cases.

        Back to the question of the day: the size of the House and its specific effect upon the Electoral College as it operates today. As an illustration to illuminate, suppose the House while reflecting population differences between the states was hardly increased at all and stood today at just 69 members (originally it was set in the year 1789 at 65). Certainly there would be far fewer federal representatives and fewer actors, less talking, perhaps less argumentation. In this scenario, today, Pennsylvania and Illinois would each have two representatives, New York and Florida, three, Texas, four, California, five, and every other state would have but one each. The Electoral tallies of the recent presidential election would have given 70 votes to Clinton and 96 votes to Trump, if my math is correct (D.C. still gives 3 votes to Clinton and Trump gets no vote from Maine). One can see by this illustration the Electoral Vote result would even more poorly reflect the recent popular vote, while the far fewer number of electors increases proportionately the importance and significance of each one individually. Each person’s vote in larger states would count even relatively less compared to the votes of people in the smaller states (including D.C.).

        “Does your vote count?” is not a simple or easy question to answer. Far from it.

  8. A big number of Americans would like to have other options than our current two-party system. But our Constitution, and more precisely, the Electoral College system, makes it practically impossible. If we only could do away with monopoly (duopoly?) of the two parties, we could work out the parliamentary system. I know I’m dreaming. I also know that President Trump just shut down the refugee program and is detaining people at the U.S. airports as I write this. I’m a beneficiary of a refugee program (under President Reagan) and I cannot bear the thought that people running away from war are once again (e.g. Jews during the World War II) denied protection in the U.S.

  9. The stultifying state of our political system may be attributed to the stranglehold on power to nominate and select only those individuals hewing to the party line, thereby institutionalizing the status quo and denying the ability of the system to re-invigorate itself with candidates offering out of the box or should I say out of the party solutions to the issues of the day.

    • This is an excellent, excellent statement and all the more so for its concision. I modestly would like to mention just a few of the key, root causes of the condition described: money, political and economic inequality, institutionalized militarism, arrogance, bigotry, ignorance, and oligarchy,

    • Blaming the recent election on our political parties and their “stranglehold on power” seems completely contrary to what actually happened in 2016. It seems to me that the Republican Party showed itself to be astonishingly weak and even inept in managing the selection process, and that the leadership of the party was largely disappointed with the result. Both parties, in fact, seemed incapable of exercising anything like a “stranglehold on power.”

      The reasons why are complex (I don’t pretend to understand them). But surely the new media of Facebook and Twitter have played an important role, much as Andrew Jackson’s use of the penny press, FDR’s use of radio and JFK’s use of television constrained and channeled the way the parties worked.

      The Electoral College is a dangerous provision in our Constitution. When the country is evenly divided, as it was prior to the Civil War and as it is again today, it discourages the forces of reconciliation and unity. Only when the Electoral College count is consistent with the popular vote — that is, when it is irrelevant — is the country safe from this pernicious provision. When the tallies are different, the country tumbles into a crisis of legitimacy. This will be true no matter how many parties we have.

      • If one recognizes the extraordinary excess of national, mass, and yes, alternative and social-media coverage allotted both to candidates Clinton and Trump, both good and bad, positive and negative (depending on each case and the individual’s viewpoint, seductive and appealing to some, confounding and horrifying to others), compared to all the other candidates in the race, particularly Sanders but certainly those of various third parties, and if one carefully rereads Ms. Fanizzi’s comment and sees she refers to the stranglehold of power to nominate the political party candidates “hewing to the party line,” not specifically or necessarily the stranglehold of the leaders or members of these parties, there should be no confusion.

        “Parties” by themselves do not exercise political control or maintain any “stranglehold” on power, in isolation to the rest of the system. Parties are merely organizational and branding tools and malleable symbolic representations used by the real, the deeper, the more obscured centers of power in our society: a small number of very wealthy families, or more broadly great sums of money and its cousins, influence, media control, the entertainment, advertising and propaganda industries, and the publicly funded “public” (i.e., government-controlled) educational and human development systems and sources of employment, etc.

        • But if the parties nominate only those who “hew to the party line,” surely 2016 showed nothing of the sort. Donald Trump did not hew to the party line, and he won. Bernie Sanders did not hew to the party line, and he came awfully close to winning.

          Changing the subject from what to do about the Electoral College to a debate about political parties and whether they are good for the country or bad, is a distraction. Americans have a shared ideal of fairness, and awarding the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes is part of that ideal. When the machinery of government awards the victory to someone other than the highest-vote winner, it just feels wrong. Any president selected through the Electoral College who is the loser of the popular vote will enter office with a pall over his authority. The Electoral College is a weak plank in the floor of the House of Democracy. Step on it and you’re gonna get hurt. Let’s do something about that.

          • I do think the two major parties each have their own separate social or philosophical wings. Each of the respective wings is typically at odds with the other wing of the party although there is usually a tremendous amount of compromising made as needed in the interests of party unity.

            The Democratic Party has its socializing, human rights, socialist wing and it has its business and financial wing. The Republican Party has its limited government, libertarian, free enterprise wing and it has its strong defense, law and order / authoritarian, and narrow (much narrower than the comparable philosophy and process as it exists within the Democratic Party) pork-barrel wing.

            When the intraparty compromising is viewed as pandering, as inauthentic, as inadequate, or if it otherwise is insufficiently displayed and communicated, the party is apt to be disunited and to lose the election. And that’s what happened in 2016 to the Democrats nationally; same thing happened to the Republicans in 2012 nationally.

            The socialist wing of the Democratic Party and the limited government wing of the Republican Party are the weaker ones. In almost every case in almost every election they are taken for a rhetorical ride by their respective party’s stronger wing.

            The fact the Sanders lost the nomination, no matter how well he did, is all you need to know about the power of the wing he represents. Clinton was unable to sufficiently rally this wing in order to unite the party to win. The pronouncements and the stated policies of Trump which are viewed most with horror by the Democrats are not entirely unique to his person nor are they mostly new to his party. He merely managed to more deeply and thoroughly tap into currents which in the past have been held in check or kept in a decades-long state of hibernation.

            Spending too much effort trying to fiddle with system of the Electoral College (rather than looking at the deeper challenges and limitations of democracy itself, and of political systems more generally) undoubtedly performs the function of a catharsis for the losing party. However in practice it is more akin to a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic than it is to the saving of lives and the search for justice.

      • What actually happened was a genius move by Donald Trump to seek the Republican Party nomination, not the Reform Party.