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Sorry Hillary, This Year Nobody Really Won The Popular Vote

popular vote
Copyright Gino Santa Maria

Many are saying that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but she didn’t win it either.  By the last count, Hillary Clinton had 47.85%.Why do we assume that to “win the popular vote” means to have the largest portion still below 51%?  

This year, nobody won the popular vote. Barring something drastic, such as faithless electors or untimely death, Trump will win the Electoral College vote and become President of the United States.  He wins this with likely 47.23% of the popular vote.  Many are saying that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but she didn’t win it either.  By the last count, Hillary Clinton had 47.85%.  

“The popular vote” in the US is informal.  It is not defined in the US Constitution, and has no legal bearing, but the media does inform us of the “popular vote” outcome.  As there is no formal “popular vote” in the US, “winning” the popular vote is also undefined.

But doesn’t Hillary’s popular vote beat Trump?  

It’s a higher portion, but she didn’t win the popular vote.  Nobody did.

Why do we assume that to “win the popular vote” means to have the largest portion still below 51%?

Even after every last absentee ballot is counted, neither of these candidates will pass the 50% threshold needed to “win”, at least, as I’m defining winning.  I can do that, because you see, the popular vote isn’t official.  Nobody has officially decided what it means to “win” the popular vote.

Why we get unpopular candidates

The Electoral College is at worst a speck of dust on a much larger wound on American Democracy.  How often do we say, “I’m just voting for the lesser of two evils!”?  How often do we not so much vote for the candidate we want, but against the candidate we really don’t want?  Why is this?  In our nation of over 380 million people, can’t we find some better candidates?

The real problem is the “win by plurality” system we see in most elections throughout the country.  Imagine if you will a four-way race for President.  Imagine that we had no Electoral College, and that the winner of the race is whomever wins the largest portion of the popular vote, no majority needed.

In this hypothetical race, we have Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.  It’s a week before Election Day.  Rand Paul has 20%, Trump has 30%, Clinton has 30%, and Sanders has 20%.  In this matchup, Trump would win if everyone voted for exactly the candidate they wanted, but the media is reporting these numbers and the voters are seeing them.  

Now, the Clinton’s supporters start talking.  Trump is set to win, but what if we could get those Bernie Sanders supporters on our side?  That would give us 50% . The Trump Train is thinking the same thing about those who support Rand Paul.  Little do they know that many of those Sanders supporters would rather support Paul than Trump or Clinton, and many of those Paul supporters would sooner support Sanders than Trump or Clinton.  However, neither Rand Paul nor Bernie Sanders will be President.  So what happens?  Most of the Paul’s voters go to Trump, while a few go to Clinton.  Most of the Sanders’ supporters go to Clinton, while a few go the Trump.  

Had the Paul’s  and the Bernie’s voters found a way to team up, they could have won with 40%, but they didn’t.  They chose between the lesser of two evils.  One of them wins, but either way, 70% of the population loses.  

This is what happens when you have a “win by plurality” system.  That is, you don’t need a 50% majority to win, only the largest portion.  It is so predictable, that in political science, we call it Duverger’s Law.

That Darned Electoral College

Clinton voters lament that the candidate that so many of them hated, lost to the candidate they hated more because of that darned Electoral College.  This also happened in 2000 with Bush v. Gore, two more of the wonderful candidates our pluralistic two party system offers.  The truth is that we are stuck in a two party oligarchy.  Two dominant parties have this electoral system setup to keep out competition.  Merely abolishing the Electoral College would only add to the pretense of legitimacy these two parties enjoy.  

While there are advantages to the Electoral College, such as making it more difficult for highly populous states to impose their will on more sparsely populated states, many want to ignore federalism and treat our Presidential Elections as though the United States were a single, United State.  If that is your goal, then here is how we can do it in a way that makes our elections truly competitive.

Scott Benowitz gave an excellent history on the Electoral College and an impassioned call for abolishing it, but like most advocates of abolishing it, he didn’t offer any specific alternatives.

How do we really fix it?

Wouldn’t you like to be able to actually vote for your favorite candidate, but in the event that that candidate really does lose, cast another vote one of the remaining candidates that you prefer over the others?  The best approach to this would be the “instant runoff elections”, also known as “single transferable vote”.  Here’s how it works.

As a voter, you would get a ballot with the names of the candidates, but rather than simply voting for one candidate, you’d rank the candidates by number.  If there are 7 candidates, you’d rank them 1-7.  You do have the option of only selecting 1, or 2, or 3, etc.  

Here’s how the count works. First, they count all the number 1 choices.  They will probably have a threshold, such as 20%.  Every candidate who gets at least 20% is still in.  Any candidate who is less than 20% is eliminated.  So with 7 candidates, let’s say that 3 were below 20%.  We now have the remaining 4 candidates.  Everyone who picked one of those 3 as their first choice, now get their second choice.  If their second choice was one of those 3, it goes to the third choice.  With those 4 candidates, they have a threshold of 40%.  Let’s say 2 of those candidates get 40%, and 2 don’t.  Now we are down to the final 2.  If you voted for the other 2 who are eliminated, either as your first, second, third, choice, however, many, it goes to your next.  So in other words, if those final two candidates were your number 6 and 7, your 6th choice will now count.  So with those final two, it comes down to how many people preferred one over the other, and they would need over 50% of the popular vote to win clearly.

There has also been discussion of a more traditional runoff election, where we simply count the votes, and if nobody passes say, the 40% threshold, or perhaps 50% (which I’d prefer), we have a runoff and vote again.  But voters do tend to get tired of going back to the polls, and with modern technology, why go with that dated system when we have single transferable vote?  The above explains how these runoff elections can happen instantly so that you only need to go to the poll once.

The worst thing we could do is to abolish the Electoral College in favor of simply giving the White House to whichever hated candidate gets the largest portion of the vote.  It would simply legitimize the “lesser of two evils”.  If we’re going to change the way we conduct Presidential Elections, let’s do it right.

 

Read more: We Should Abolish the Electoral College

1 Comment

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  • “Why do we assume that to “win the popular vote” means to have the largest portion still below 51%?”
    Because that’s what a relative majority is. Getting the simple majority, in any contest, generally doesnt make one inherently the winner, rather which candidates summation is the largest.

About the author

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is not talking politics, Richard is an aspiring novelist, and culinary hobbyist. Richard holds MSc from London School of Economics in Political Science.

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