The Electoral College still beats an election by popular vote alone

Is it possible that Mitt Romney could garner the most votes in this presidential race and still lose to Barack Obama? Charlie Cook of the National Journal argues in this piece that it is.

“In the end, the odds still favor the popular and electoral vote heading in the same direction, but the chances of a split like the one in 2000 are very real, along with the distinct possibility of ambiguity and vote-counting issues once again putting the outcome in question. Ugh,” he writes.

Ugh, indeed.

If this topsy-turvy result happened, it would be the fourth time in history. The most recent, as Cook alludes, gave George W. Bush the White House in 2000 because he won the Electoral College, even though Al Gore got the most votes overall.

But I echo the “Ugh” to this outcome only because it would give the politically naïve more ammunition to change a system that works.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect election system — one that guarantees the will of the people and protects the politically weak from being steamrolled by the politically powerful.

Stop laboring under that delusion and ask yourself this question: What is the goal of a presidential election?

Is it to empower the person who collects the most votes? In that case, a popular election won’t necessarily guarantee the will of the people any more than the Electoral College. Bill Clinton never got 50 percent of the popular vote. Third and fourth party candidates are likely to proliferate under a system that only counts votes.

The nation then would have to decide whether the election should be handed to whichever candidate receives the most votes, or whether the winner must have at least 50 percent plus one. If it’s the latter, you will end up with runoff elections and a coalition government.

For instance, in 2000, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated in a runoff, but he then could have demanded that Al gore accept some of his platform in exchange for his endorsement.

The same might have happened on the other side in the ‘90s with Ross Perot.

If you simply allow the person with the most votes to win, you end up with a leader who was elected by a minority of the people.

Does Europe have a better system? There, voters elect parties, and the winning party then sets up a government, often having to form coalitions with other parties when no clear winner emerges.

It’s merely a different form of unfairness, depending again on what you think ought to be the goal.

The Electoral College puts the focus squarely on the states. Each state holds its own popular vote for president, and candidates are forced to focus on issues that are important to those states. This is the best way to look after the unique needs of a far-flung and diverse nation.

Under no other system would Colorado attract the attention it has during this race. The same can be said for Nevada.

It’s also not a perfect system.

In recent decades, Americans seem to have segregated themselves by geography.  When it comes to presidential politics, the number of battleground states are precious and few, at least during an election as close as this one. lists 10 states as tossups, totaling 131 electoral votes.

Those states solidly in one camp or another have told the candidates how the majority of their people feel about the race.

However imperfect that may be, it is correct to put state needs front and center in presidential politics. That is far better than putting the emphasis on large urban centers, which is what would result from a purely popular vote system.

Categories: Campaign 2012

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. kohler

    A survey of Utah voters showed 70% overall support for the idea that the President of the United States should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states. Voters were asked:
    “How do you think we should elect the President: Should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current Electoral College system?”
    Support for a national popular vote, by political affiliation, was 82% among Democrats, 66% among Republicans, and 75% among others.
    By gender, support was 78% among women and 60% among men.
    By age, support was 70% among 18-29 year olds, 70% among 30-45 year olds, 70% among 46-65 year olds, and 68% for those older than 65.
    Then, voters asked a second question that emphasized that Utah’s electoral votes would be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states, not Utah, vote. In this second question, 66% of Utah voters favored a national popular vote.
    “Do you think it more important that a state’s electoral votes be cast for the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in that state, or is it more important to guarantee that the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states becomes president?”
    Support for a national popular vote, by political affiliation, was 77% among Democrats, 63% among Republicans, and 62% among others.
    By gender, support was 72% among women and 58% among men.
    By age, support was 61% among 18-29 year olds, 64% among 30-45 year olds, 68% among 46-65 year olds, and 66% for those older than 65.

  2. David Matheson

    Under the electoral college a President has to win support in a weighted majority of states.

    Under a direct vote states do not matter any more. Politics would be based on a raw majority, and in Europe that is based on class, elsewhere on religion or tribe (race.)

    History & experience suggest that would lead to a Welfare state on the European model, and a decline within 20 – 30 years.

    Is this your intention?

    • kohler

      With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation’s votes!

      The National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

      Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

      National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

      And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state are wasted and don’t matter to candidates. Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

      With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it was cast.

      Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

      The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

      The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

      In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

      The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


  3. maurer

    The justification of the electoral college rests with the concept of a federal union. We don’t vote for president. We decide how our individual states vote for president. If the electoral college is invalid then also is the US Senate where Wyoming and Montana and Delaware get two votes and California, New York and Texas get the same.

  4. Carl Creasman

    Good post. I agree completely having just written a similar defense of the Electoral College for Huffington Post.

    The key thing, I believe, is that the Founders were determined to protect the Republic from the excesses of a popularity contest where the people are so easily misled. Moreover, they wanted to make sure that the power lay (as you wrote) with the States—they wanted power to be local, close by, something that could be watched.

    I posted more here:

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.