The Electoral College is only getting worse

It is routinely on the edge of handing the popular vote loser the presidency

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The Electoral College is a political abomination. As I have written before, rather than protecting the influence of small states, it grants overwhelming power to a handful of states that randomly happen to have a close partisan balance, which are mostly fairly large. Worse, it allows popular vote losers to win — which has happened twice in the last 20 years. Indeed, theoretically a candidate could lose the popular vote four to one and still win the electoral vote.

Moreover, since 2012 the divergence between the Electoral College and the popular vote has been steadily growing. As I'll show below, while Joe Biden won a clear victory in the popular vote, he just barely squeaked through in the Electoral College. This idiotic anachronism must be destroyed.

Let's take a look at this over the last two decades. One way to examine this question is to look at the most "efficient" way that losing candidates could have won the Electoral College. In other words, if we add up the state totals for previous elections going back to 2000, how might the losers have won by flipping the least number of votes?

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Using data from U.S. Elections Atlas, and 2020 data from the The New York Times (including a rough extrapolation assuming Biden wins 80 percent of the mail-in votes that haven't been counted yet in New York state), I calculated how the popular vote losers could have won the Electoral College — or lost, in the case of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.

In 2000, of course, Bush officially "won" Florida by 537 votes, and therefore the presidency with 271 electoral votes, while Al Gore won the popular vote by about 550,000. (In reality, Gore probably would have won a fair recount in Florida if it hadn't been stopped by a conservative Supreme Court on nakedly partisan grounds, but I'm going to ignore that for the time being since it doesn't matter for this particular argument.) That means a flip of just 269 votes in one state from one candidate to the other would have changed the result. In 2004, Bush won re-election with a margin of about three million votes, and 286 electoral votes. John Kerry famously could have won if he had just flipped Ohio, where the margin was just 118,601 votes. However, it would have been slightly more efficient in vote terms to flip New Mexico, Iowa, Nevada, and Alaska, with a cumulative margin of 117,411. That means a flip of just 58,706 votes would have given Kerry the presidency.

In 2008, Barack Obama steamrolled John McCain with a popular vote margin of over 9.5 million, and 365 electoral votes. But it would have taken relatively few vote changes to overturn even that landslide result. Obama won Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Rhode Island, Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, Vermont, Delaware, New Hampshire, Indiana, and North Carolina by a cumulative margin of just 1.436 million votes — therefore flipping just 718,138 would have given McCain an additional 97 electoral votes and victory. Similarly in 2012, Mitt Romney could have won by taking the nine closest states in terms of total votes, requiring only 384,188 flips. Then in 2016, Trump of course squeaked out an Electoral College victory with tiny margins in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — just 38,868 flips would have given Clinton the win.

That finally brings me to 2020. Biden won the popular vote easily, with a margin maybe in the neighborhood of 6.9 million or so (depending on what happens in New York.) But it would have taken just 33,139 flips in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin to deliver a Trump second term.

Bringing this all together: If we plot these minimum vote flips to change the Electoral College result as a percentage of the popular vote margin, we can get a sense of how badly it diverges from the principle of one person, one vote:

What this shows is that the Electoral College is routinely on the edge of handing the popular vote loser the presidency even when it doesn't happen — and it seems to be getting worse. In 2008 and 2012, it would have taken a flip of 7.5 percent and 11 percent of the popular vote margin (still not great), but in 2016, flipping just 1.3 percent of the margin would change the result. The 2020 election, meanwhile, is the worst result since 2000 — though Biden did win, a flip of a mere 0.48 percent of the popular vote margin (or something like 0.02 percent of the total vote) would have let Trump win. Moreover, while the 2008 flipping scenario outlined above relies on implausible large percentage swings in small states like Vermont, Biden's victory depended on razor-thin margins in three swing states.

All this speaks for itself. But before Republicans get too smug about cooking up justifications for the Electoral College because it happens to help them at the moment, consider that in 2004, flipping just 1.9 percent of the popular vote margin would have delivered the presidency to the Democrat even though Bush got three million more votes. Because the Electoral College's rules are so goofy and arbitrary, it is very easy to imagine demographic trends handing the Dems a near-automatic victory every time — if Texas went solidly blue, for instance. It would be better and fairer for everyone if the presidency simply went to the candidate that got the most votes.

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