WRONG WINNER ELECTIONS: time to review our electoral systems?

January 11, 2017

On 8th November 2016, Hillary Clinton won the keys to the White House and became president-elect of the United States. At least, she would have done had it not been for an archaic institution known as the Electoral College. Despite winning 65 million votes to Trump’s 62 million, Mrs. Clinton won 77 fewer Electoral College votes and consequently, did not win the presidency. Immediately, there was an outcry for the Electoral College to dump-Trump when they cast their votes on 19th December. But in the event, only a handful of electors defected and had no impact on the result of the election. This is the second time that a popular vote/ electoral vote split has occurred in the last five presidential elections, the other occasion being in 2000 when George W. Bush beat the incumbent vice-president Albert Gore by five Electoral College votes but lost the popular vote. 

Mrs. Clinton performed well amongst voters in states that typically vote for the Democrats and thus, won them by big margins. But her problem came in the so-called ‘battleground’ states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In these states, president-elect Trump beat Mrs. Clinton by small margins, in Michigan the difference between the two candidates was just 10704 votes. As each state allocates all of their Electoral College votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote rather than the nation, Mr. Trump was able to take the required electoral votes to get him over the required 270. Mrs. Clinton failed to turn out her voters in the close, competitive, races that would give her the White House but won big in states that were already solidly Democratic. In some states, the difference between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton was smaller than the number of votes won by a third party candidate, Jill Stein, prompting her to be vilified by some Democrats and accused of spoiling to election for Mrs. Clinton. In 2000, Ralph Nader faced a similar backlash as he received just short of 10,000 votes in the nail-bitingly close state of Florida where Mr. Gore lost by just 537 ballots. Experts argued that a small decrease of votes in Gore's favour would have won him the election. Of course, although the impact of third party candidates has been controversial, if voters want to vote for them- that is their democratic choice. 

This problem is not unique to the American system and in the UK there have also been examples of elections where the party that went on to form a government did not win plurality of the popular vote. The most recent example was in February 1974 when Harold Wilson won 301 seats to Edward Heath’s 297 but received 226,564 fewer votes. Another was in 1951 when Clement Attlee’s Labour party won over a million more votes than Winston Churchill’s Conservative party but the Conservative party went on to win an overall majority with 321 seats to Labour’s 295. In both cases, the party that won the popular vote also lost key marginal seats and the net result was suffering the same fate as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gore. 

Liberal Democracies require elections to function properly and give voters the ability to select their representatives. If two out of five games of football resulted in the team that scored the most goals at each game losing the match, then a better system would be introduced. Had Donald Trump had won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, his supporters would not be prepared to accept the result. Because the shoe was on the other foot, many of them have simply dismissed the split. A common line from Trumpers has been ‘Mrs. Clinton would not have won the popular vote without California’. Whilst this is true, just about, it is worth pointing out that Mr. Trump would not have won the Electoral College without Texas. I’m not trying to say that Hillary Clinton should suddenly become President-elect; the rules of the election were clear enough and Donald Trump won fair and square. What I am saying is that there should be some provision in future elections for the winner of the popular vote to be the overall winner of the election. An Electoral College could remain in place, but a different system could be used for allocating electoral votes. 

After all, surely the point of a democratic system is to elect the candidate that wins the most support of the voters. The problem is that once politicians get into power using a system, they raise the drawbridge. If a system has put a party into power once, it probably will again and the incentive to make any changes is removed. I have never been a strong advocate of electoral reform but with the analysis that election winner/ popular vote splits could become more common in both the US and the UK, it is time that we at least look at the systems that we use to elect our representatives and decide whether or not they are the still up to the job.

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