In the year 2000, we recall that George W. Bush won the presidential election in the Electoral College, although Al Gore had a majority of the popular vote. (I’m ignoring any issues about the counting of the votes.) This stimulated some discussion of the possibility that the Electoral College might be eliminated by constitutional amendment so that the president would be elected by popular vote, but this was widely thought impossible on the grounds that the Electoral College favors the small states, and thus the small states would oppose the amendment. After all, every voter in Wyoming has more than three times the representation in the Electoral College as a voter in Pennsylvania because Wyoming’s population is so much smaller relative to its electoral vote. On the other hand, if Wyoming is not a “swing state,” the Wyoming voter may not have any influence in the Electoral College at all. So, is it true that the Electoral College favors small states? In 2000 it probably did, but that is not the only possibility, and I think it is possible — not likely, but possible — that Obama might win the Electoral College in 2012 and lose the popular vote.
How could that happen? I’m old, and I remember the election of 1960 very well. I couldn’t vote in it because the voting age then was 21, but I was very interested. I was a Goldwaterite at 18 and thus a “hold-my-nose” supporter of Nixon. In that election, Kennedy won both the popular and electoral votes, but the popular vote was much closer than the electoral vote. With just a small shift in the popular vote, Nixon could have won the popular vote while still losing the electoral vote. The reason is that Kennedy won the big states by narrow margins while Nixon won small states by large margins. Each state awarded its electoral vote on a winner-take-all basis to the winner of the popular vote in the state. Thus, if more voters had turned out in the safe Republican small states like Maine and Nebraska, Nixon might have won the popular vote without changing the electoral vote. Now, it is widely reported that the popular vote in 2012 is likely to be much closer in some key swing states than it was in 2008. If Obama were to run the table with the swing states while Romney gets large majorities in southern and rural small states, we might see Romney win the popular vote and Obama win the electoral vote.
This leads to one conclusion: The Electoral College doesn’t benefit anyone — it just makes elections less predictable.
One further thought: In response to the 1960 result, Maine, then reliably Republican, gave up the all-or-nothing award of electoral votes and now divides them by congressional districts. Nebraska later followed suit. However, this only makes things worse, in two ways. First, the difference in population per electoral vote is even bigger when votes are awarded by congressional districts than it is when they are awarded by states. That makes the electoral vote more unpredictable. Second, in close elections this can weaken the small states, dividing their electoral votes; witness the fact that Obama got one Nebraska electoral vote in 2008 – from “Obamaha.”
I wrote the first draft of this column in August and then put it away and forgot it. To my surprise, on the morning of Oct. 19, talking heads on the morning news were saying just the same thing. The recent tightening of the presidential race has made it a little more probable that Obama might win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. It still isn’t very probable, but it’s more probable than before. Even if it doesn’t happen this time, we ought to start thinking about alternatives to the Electoral College.