Many journalists don’t understand the Electoral College

Forget about the Rooskies, plastic straws and gender-based pronouns. The latest boogieman/boogie-womyn/boogie-etc for the Democrats is the Electoral College.

That’s of course the system where each state gets electoral votes in rough proportion to its population. The electoral votes are then cast in accordance with state law for presidential candidates. A candidate needs 270 to win the presidency.

In almost all states, it’s winner-take-all. Whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state gets all that state’s electoral votes.

This winner-take-all system chosen by the states can produce a president who did not win the most votes nationwide. This happens if one candidate wins by large margins in some states while the other candidate wins by small margins in other states. This happened in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won landslides in some states, but Donald Trump won narrowly in others.

The Electoral College is the system enshrined in the Constitution (remember that?) by the founders. They rejected a system of electing presidents through a nationwide vote. They wanted sovereign states united by a federal government. It’s called Federalism, and it has served us well.

But the Electoral College is under attack by Democrats ever since Trump won with 304 votes to Clinton’s 227. State sovereignty is out of fashion with the Dems except on certain favored issues like illegal immigration.

Aware that they could never get a Constitutional amendment passed to abolish the Electoral College, the Dems are instead scheming to nullify it with a pact among the states. Their scheme is probably a violation of the Constitutional prohibition (ah, that pesky Constitution again!) on interstate compacts, but we won’t know that for sure until the Supreme Court says so.

Federalism in general is a good thing to debate, as the Founders did. But some of the partisan attacks on the Electoral College are simply wrong on the facts. To wit:

It is not true that the Electoral College favors small states, as some journalists contend. Electoral College votes are in proportion to state population, aside from a small error introduced by allowing each state a vote corresponding to its two senators (another aspect of Federalism). Montana, Delaware and Wyoming each has only three votes and Rhode Island has four, while California has 55, New York has 29 and Texas has 36.

It also is not true that the Electoral College necessarily favors Republicans, as some journalists have wrongly claimed. What it may favor are the voters in states where the vote is close. Hillary won Maryland and its 10 votes by a landslide, while Trump won Wisconsin and its matching 10 votes by a sliver. An argument can be made, therefore, that each Wisconsin vote was more important than each Maryland vote in the sense that more of the Maryland votes were unneeded “excess” ones.

But a similar result obtains if we were to elect the president with a nationwide popular vote. All the votes for the winner in excess of the votes received by the losing candidate plus one vote, are unneeded “excess” votes.

In any event, the party affiliation of the voters has no bearing on this phenomenon. It can go either way, and in any given election it does. For example, Trump won Texas by a landslide, but still earned only 36 Electoral College votes — the same as if he’d won it by a single vote. A large number of Texas votes for Trump therefore wound up unneeded “excess” ones.

And finally, it is not true that the Electoral College somehow favors conservative rural voters at the expense of progressive urban ones as some liberal media outlets claim. To the contrary, an urban vote counts for exactly the same as a rural one. In California, the vote of a San Franciscan counts the same as the vote of a farmer in the Central Valley. The vote of a Floridian counts the same whether he’s in a Miami condo or a panhandle orange grove.

It’s true that in 2016 each of those California votes wound up less important than each Florida vote. But that’s not because the Florida votes were rural and the California votes were urban. It’s because the vote in Florida was close while the vote in California was not.

The lesson for voters who want their votes to be important is this. Make your state purple, not red or blue. Candidates don’t waste time campaigning in California or Texas, because those states are already in the bag. But they do campaign in Ohio and Florida, because those states can go either way.

Your state can be purple by being receptive to candidates from the other tribe. A purple state is a close state, and the votes in a close state are important.

To be fair, I think most journalists don’t intend to deceive in their reporting on the effects of the Electoral College (though I think the Dem politicians do, because it gins up their base).

Rather, I think many journalists simply lack the care and acumen to translate the Electoral College system into the Electoral College consequences. That’s unfortunate.

(Published Aug 11, 2019 in the Aspen Times at )


1 thought on “Many journalists don’t understand the Electoral College

  1. An organization called FiveThirty Eight has published an interactive map that according to their analysis shows the probabilities of Republicans or Democrats being elected to Congress under various redistricting schemes. See

    As a centrist, I would prefer to see redistricting done to achieve the objective of making the most districts “highly competitive,” with the thought that it would improve the prospects of moderate Congressional candidates over extremists.

    That form of redistricting could also improve the prospects of moderate presidential candidates if states adopted the Constitutionally permissible policy of assigning their electoral votes according to the winner within each of their Congressional districts. That would, for example, cause some of California’s and New York’s votes to go the Republican presidential candidates and some of Texas’s to go to Democrats, thereby giving more political influence to the voters in those districts without going to the extreme of an interstate voting compact that you mentioned.

    BTW, all of the states with 3 electoral votes are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, which typically results in 5 electoral votes for Republicans and 2 for Democrats — hardly an overwhelming advantage for Republicans.

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