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Protesting the Electoral College is Not an Urban Plot

I've recently seen the argument that getting rid of the Electoral College would be an urbanist plot to aggrandize the power of big cities. (You can find some of this under the trending hashtag, #TellTheElectoralCollege). This is not true. 

For context on why this is important-- TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SAND!-- Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands of votes, but lost the electoral vote 299.5 to 238.5. The Electoral College has the ability to change its vote if the electors desire, but it remains to be seen whether that is at all realistic to hope for. 

Here's a map of electoral votes in conveniently viewable hexagons representing the votes.

In today's politics, cities do in fact tend to have more clustered groups of similarly-minded voters than suburbs or rural areas, which vote consistently Republican but with much smaller margins of victory. But that issue isn't exactly what's going on in the Electoral College. Part of what's going on is that that same pattern happens at a state level as well.

Many of the states that Donald Trump won in the Electoral College were by very narrow margins, while lots of states Hillary Clinton won were by significant margins. Us Rhode Islanders can attest that being small doesn't mean the Electoral College treats you with added importance. Rhode Island voted for Clinton at a much lower rate than it did Obama, but the margin was still decisive. Every vote that goes beyond a bare majority is essentially "wasted" by states like Rhode Island, making it highly attractive to stay home.

My experience of having first lived in Pennsylvania, in a very large city, and now living in Rhode Island, in a fairly small city, is that the electoral system greatly expanded the power of Philadelphia while diminishing the power of Providence. Philadelphia has enough votes that if people turn out in large numbers, it can sway an election. Providence is actually a bigger percentage of the Rhode Island vote than Philadephia is of the Pennsylvania one, but Providence is more similar in voting patterns with its statewide vote than Philadelphia is. It's about homogeneity, not size.

And part of this is a "sample size error". If you drew a Rhode Island-shaped box over Philadelphia (which, for reference, is about the size of the Bay) than its 1.6 million people and the 4 million or so living in the suburbs would be just as Democratic as Rhode Island (but worth a lot more electoral votes). If you did that somewhere else in Pennsylvania, it would change the math in a different way.

Lots of small states-- by population-- Vermont, Nebraska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Utah are irrelevant year after year (Utah briefly was discussed as an important race because of a third party conservative candidate, who was believed to be able to mix up the race, but that proved incorrect). What makes a state more important in the Electoral College is not that it's small, or rural, or urban, because large states are also fairly irrelevant to politicians: New York, California, Oregon, and Washington are all fairly decided places, despite being large or medium sized. Republicans in places like Massachusetts and Rhode Island have no incentive to turn out and vote for president, just like Democrats in Utah or Kentucky do not.

This brings us to the central point: Would getting rid of the Electoral College suddenly unleash a saturnalia of urban political power? Yes and no. You could not win an election just by swinging big cities (or, at least, it would be no easier than today's system). If a Democratic (let's say) candidate came on the scene arguing that suburbs and rural areas should be ignored, the margins of victory for Republicans (say) would grow. This would be especially powerful in suburban areas and smaller cities that don't vote in a lopsided way. 

So what it really comes down to, in the end, is whether you think it's right to continue a system where voters are undercounted because they live next to each other.

In the meantime, it's not undemocratic to argue that the Electoral College should change their vote to represent the plurality of voters who voted for Hillary Clinton, and the majority who voted against Donald Trump. It's also not a sign that people are ignorant of the Constitution. The Constitution allows for the Electoral College to vote however it wants. Protesting to make that option attractive is exactly what our country is about.



  1. Here's an active movement to legally create a national popular vote without amending the Constitution:

  2. Flipping between a national popular 51% vote and an electoral college vote is the wrong question. Here are some better questions:

    Should each election be for sale to people who want huge government kickbacks?

    The public's airwaves are intensely valuable, but are given out for free to private corporations, who used to be required by law to act in the public service with these airwaves. Recently, a few oligopolistic companies have bought up local TV and radio channels by the dozen. Coverage of the election has been skewed, for example, one survey found that the network news covered Donald Trump for 80 minutes of air time but gave a total of only 20 seconds of air time to Bernie Sanders.

    Highly corruption-resistant forms of election exist. I recommend examining the ranked choice system that Cambridge, MA has used for the past 76 years straight.

    --Paul Klinkman
    (anonymous as usual)

  3. Major League Baseball needs to abolish its electoral college model of unfairly awarding the World Series championship to teams that win the most games in a seven game series, rather than the team that scores the most runs. This year, 2016, the Indians and Cubs both scored 27 runs, but the Cubs were unfairly awarded the championship on the basis of four individual games in which they out-scored the Indians. A shared championship trophy should have been awarded.

    Likewise, in 2002 (Giants 44 - Angels 41), 1997 (Indians 44 - Marlins 37), and 1991 (Braves 29 - Twins 24), the teams scoring the most runs for the entire series were unfairly denied the championship because they were out-scored in four individual games. This is clearly unfair, and Major League Baseball needs to address this injustice by abolishing its antiquated system of awarding championships based on the results of individual games!

    I'm sure former President Gore would agree with me on this.

    1. Mathematically what you are saying is a valid metaphor, but it's not the same situation. We don't play the World Series as a way of making granular policy decisions about what the American public wants to do on a domestic or international scale. We play it as a game. We may aggregate wins of games in a seven game count rather than counting overall runs, but that's because the results of that contest are meant to produce results that have nothing to do with the real world.