A Trump-supporting friend of mine who lives in Tempe, Arizona keeps sending me claims I can’t find anywhere else. The latest are mostly about Pennsylvania, my home state. Here is one text:
The 100,000 votes, all for Biden, was a claim he’d made previously. I am willing to believe that here in London, I might miss some of these news stories, but I Googled these numbers and looked on Breitbart, the alt-right news organization Steve Bannon headed until he left to join the Trump campaign in 2016. I figured that if this story was out there, they would carry it. I keep asking my friend for links, sources. He keeps telling me it’s all over the news. (Anyone who has seen a source for these stories, please let me know.) One conversation struck me, though:
His response was that she never conceded. I was prepared this time, because it was not the first time I’d heard this. First was a right-leaning friend who’d voted for Trump in 2016 but did not vote for him this time because she thought he’d been too divisive. She hadn’t said Clinton had never conceded; she’d said, “To be fair, it took Clinton a long time to concede.” My immediate reaction was, “Well, maybe, but even if that’s true, she wasn’t tweeting that she’d won the election and was ‘robbed’.” But I looked it up, because I didn’t even remember an inordinate delay. My conversation with my friend took place on November 9, and by coincidence, when I looked it up, I saw that unless the entire world press was in on a “fake news” hoax, Hillary Clinton made her concession speech at 11:40 EST on November 9:
At first, I thought, “Oh, I guess she did wait a bit,” but then, when I looked at the calendar, I realized that the election that year was on November 8. In her speech, she says she congratulated Donald Trump “last night.” I’m guessing that was after midnight, given time zones, but still, she conceded less than twelve hours after the last polls closed.
So what gave this rumor traction? Clinton, of course, has muddied the waters a bit, with her book and tour during the 2020 election’s primary season. I’ve said before that her “lessons learned” are all about who or what is to blame—other, of course, than Clinton herself. And certainly the British television presenters I saw were so excited to have her on their sofas that they didn’t challenge any of her assertions. But even in her self-justifying “analysis” of the election, she did not make accusations of widespread voter fraud. As a matter of fact, when some analysts suggested there might be vote tampering or fraud, the Clinton-supporting Obama White House issued a statement saying that “the federal government did not observe any increased level of malicious cyberactivity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on Election Day,” and assured the public that the November 8 results “accurately reflect the will of the American people.” But the election was a mess, the pollsters were wrong, and there were multiple faithless electors who voted against the wishes of the people of their states. Even here, though, there were more Democratic faithless electors, voting against Clinton, than there were Republican electors voting against Trump.
And Donald Trump’s refusal to be even a little gracious, mounting legal battles where no evidence of wrongdoing exists and angrily rallying his base with tweets about vote theft, is certainly heightening people’s uncertainty. Trump is the biggest reason things are so unsettled right now, but he is merely exploiting a seriously outdated system.
It seems to me we are going to continue to have these conversations as long as the election process is more fit for 13 18th-century states and 4 million people, most of whom could not vote, than it is for 50 21st-century states and over 350 million people. Although recent elections have made it seem like the Electoral College gives preference to red states over blue ones, at the state level, in many cases, the opposite can also be true. For example, according to the AP, approximately 800,000 people voted in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has 4 electors, so every 200,000 citizens gets one vote in the Electoral College vote for President. In Texas, by contrast, over 11,000,000 people cast their votes, which translate into 38 electoral votes. Thus, in Texas, there is only one vote cast for every 295,000 voters. The Electoral College means that a New Hampshire voter has about 1 1/2 times the voting power of every Texas voter. In recent memory, this inequity comes up every four years around the time of the election and then seems to fade out of people’s memories and mentions in the press until it becomes an issue in another election. Most people never learn the specifics, so they can believe whatever they are told by the leaders they support.
How does each state get its electors? Let’s start with the easy part: The number of electors for a state is the number of members of the House of Representatives plus the number of Senators. Since the number of US Senators is 2 for every state, a small state, like New Hampshire, automatically gets to double its power in a Presidential election. With two members of the House of Representatives, New Hampshire has 4 electoral votes. As you’ve probably heard, this was done originally to give some leverage to lower-population, rural states. Of course, at the time, not all these states were really that low in population, but slaves didn’t count, and until the 14th amendment to the US Constitution in 1868, only land-owning men could vote. So what would happen to the numbers if we removed those disproportional Senators from the numbers? New Hampshire would now have 2 electors, so there would be one vote for every 400,000 people, and Texas would have one vote for every 312,000, at least if we look at the number of people who cast votes in 2020, since the proportions of people who were eligible to vote might be different. The numbers are a little closer, but now Texas has about 1 1/3 times the voting power of every New Hampshire voter. But subtracting the two Senators from each state’s elector numbers only increases the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral vote. As the numbers stand now, Joe Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 47.5%, with the rest spread among independent candidates and write-ins. With the electoral college, this gap widens to 57% for Biden and 43% for Trump, and goes to 58% to 42% if we take out those 100 votes associated with Senate numbers. But, of course, this isn’t always how it goes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 48.5% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 46.4%, but Donald Trump got 56.8% of the electors to Clinton’s 43.1%. And in the election that arguably started all the rancor, in 2000, after the Florida recount was halted by the Supreme Court, George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote by slightly more than 1%, 271 to 266, after Al Gore won the popular vote by a similarly small margin, 48.4% to 47.9%. One thing is clear: These issues will continue to crop up as long as there are extremely close elections over such a large population. In the 1788 election, there were a total of 69 electors for a voting population of 43,782 and a total population of 3,929,214. Our population today is approximately 331 million, or 85 times that population, but our electors are less than 8 times the original number, and the number of states has increased almost fourfold, from 13 to 50. The electorate has expanded, too, with a far higher percentage of that 331 million eligible to vote. And there are many states where the difference between the winners and the losers is razor-thin.
So what’s the solution? My husband thinks it’s obvious that we should abolish the Electoral College and use the popular vote to determine the President. British by birth, he doesn’t understand the limits of the Federal government to control what happens in individual states. To be fair, neither does a lot of the electorate, and for every “state’s rights” Republican that used the “right” of the state to govern itself as an excuse for the COVID-19 mess this year, there were two cheering the President on when he tried to force the states to accept National Guard troops to “keep the peace” during the BLM protests this summer. As it stands right now, the number of Congress members, and hence electors, for each state is determined at the Federal level by the US Census, which occurs once every 10 years and is currently taking place. But the way in which a state casts those electoral votes is determined by the state. In order, for example, to make the states all go the route of Maine and Nebraska and split their electoral votes based on their populations, you’d have to get every state to agree. And every state that does decide to use proportional representation makes the disproportional effect of the other states even more profound. To go back to Texas, for example, if the largest state, California, went to proportional voting, but Texas chose to give all its votes to the winning candidate, in the 2020 election, that would mean that Donald Trump, with 52.2% of the Texas vote, would get all 38 Texas electors, while in California, Joe Biden, who received 64.3% of the vote, would get only 2/3 of the electors, or 35 electors, with Trump receiving an additional 18 electors for his 33.6%. You can understand why the majority of voters in California might be loath to change their system without assurance that every other state would be changing their systems, too.
One solution is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV), a rather complicated agreement among, at the present time, 15 states, to award all their electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. With only 15 states and 196 electoral votes, the agreement would only come into effect when there were enough electors, 270, to guarantee the intended outcome. (If the winner of the national popular vote would automatically get at least the 270 votes required to win, this would eliminate the threat of another President who’d lost the popular vote.) The reason for this end-run, instead of simplifying the whole process by amending the Constitution (again), is because it’s seen as more likely to pass and it preserves the states’ sovereignty. It would certainly encourage candidates to start to take more than a handful of states seriously. And this attention would probably encourage other states to consider the legislation.
As with anything that has been suggested to solve this problem, the NPV faces legal challenges. I find it interesting that the first objection to the idea is that “America’s Founders established the Electoral College so that all states could participate in electing the President—requiring campaigns to reach the entire country,” when in reality only a handful of states currently truly participate in electing the President. But there is hope. According to a few polls, the majority of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College. Maybe this time, instead of waiting until the next election is on the horizon, President Biden can also tackle the Electoral College from the outset, appointing a committee to assess different ways of addressing the problem—as soon as the current occupant of the White House is escorted out on January 20.