2016 US Election: Clinton “Won” the Popular Vote

0. Introduction

The US system for electing the President of the United States takes place every four years. In that system, each state has a number of electors allocated to it, one for every Congressional representative (Congress being the union of the House of Representatives and the Senate). This system has—at this time, as far as we can tell—elected Donald J Trump as the President of the United States. Some people have pointed out that the popular vote has shown the support of Hillary Clinton for President.

So what?

1. The Underlying Problem with an Unpopular Election

Let’s take a moment to show that I am capable of lifting a car. Bet on it? —Probably you won’t, but there’s no trick, I assure you. So you put your money down, I push the car over a hydraulic lift, and the car goes up under my control.

You feel cheated. You say you would never have bet if you knew I could use a hydraulic lift.

2. The “Will of the People” is Subverted by the Electoral College

Maybe, but no election can really prove this. Everyone knows in advance that the US uses the Electoral College. Especially California Republicans, and especially California Democrats. We cannot use the popular vote as a measure of anything because we do not use the popular vote as a measure of anything. So long as California Democrats continue to show up in sufficient numbers, votes are effectively suppressed. Democrats might not show up, Republicans might not show up. What’s the relationship? How do you know?

What the “popular vote” people want is that everyone voted as if there were an Electoral College but then after voting we switch to a popular vote. But if we let everyone know beforehand that we’d be using the popular vote, it’s just as likely that Trump would still win because voting behavior itself would change.

3. One Person One Vote

I could be persuaded of this in some situations, but I don’t know if I buy it for the United States of America now or in the foreseeable future.

The main problem people have is that the Electoral College subtly adjusts the weight population brings to bear on the vote. In a popular vote scenario, every person’s vote in the country matters equally. In the EC scenario, every person’s vote in that person’s state matters equally. Why highlight this difference? You need only look at the county-by-county outcome of a state like Illinois to understand.

Does a person in Detroit face the same issues as a person in Ann Arbor, for example? They may see very different challenges facing them. Or Ann Arbor and Flint? The neighboring farming community feeds a lot of city folk but because all the land is dedicated to corn and cattle there’s no votes there. But the farmers that work the land know better what they need from the government than the city dwellers that have never seen where meat comes from, except possibly in a PETA video—but then, maybe PETA thinks cows should, what, get 3/5ths of representative vote?

What about freshwater sources? What about conservation land? You think the guy running the hot dog stand on the pier knows much about this stuff, he’s real close to it, understands which policies affect it? Because which laws the President coordinates with Congress and signs (or vetos) can affect all these things.

In this light, population actually doesn’t mean anything. Maybe the farmer should get one vote and the one hundred families in an apartment complex should get one vote. If we thought in terms of our national resources, we’d probably give each state a number of votes proportional to its area.

It’s also important to note that a lot of Federal government policies are not actually put to work by the Federal government but by State governments using Federal money. If we think about these policies, then perhaps each State should get a fixed number of votes and who cares about area or population at all?

Suppose we discuss going to war and the draft, do we only allow people under 40 to vote? Missile silos are in remote areas but industry is in densely populated areas, who gets to vote here when both are likely targets?

Consider how you would try to be fair in an election involving war, farm animal rights bills, freshwater conservation, the national park system, and consumer banking regulation. You want every person’s vote to count equally, but some of these affect everyone, some only some people, and some barely anyone directly. A 22 year-old dairy farmer near a missile silo who has a part time job as a park ranger, shouldn’t we be fair and give him extra votes, since so many issues affect him, compared to the 67 year-old apartment-dweller? If the prison lobby is pushing, maybe felons should get three votes each to be fair.

What about local regulations? You would never expect the NJ commuters to vote in NYC elections but they work there, why doesn’t that count for a third of a vote or something?

One person one vote is a metric but it seems a particularly useless metric to me.

4. The Electoral College Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Under the US Constitution, States are free to run their own elections as they see fit. It’s a shame, because if I could change the Constitution with respect to the Electoral College I’d probably make it more Electoral Collegey, not less. States should have to apportion their votes based on county turnout. The California surfer knows as much about the problems facing the California rancher as the rancher knows about the problems faced by the Berkeley professor. Many issues are geographically located, by coincidence or not, and the argument for not overly diminishing the power of Rhode Island compared to New York seems just as sound to me within the States as it does between the States.

Some states are permablue even though the only thing permablue about them is one or two major population centers. What the hell do they know about the rest of the State? Getting AOL three years before someone is hardly compelling to me, even if they’re stacked in twenty-story glorified bunk beds.

5. The Founding Fathers Didn’t Think of People

If you were tasked with describing human organization on all scales, you might come up with a chain like individual, family, community, town, city, state, nation, unstable and unbalanced confederation of nations. To a first approximation, the founders of the United States chose to place a lot of priority on two of these: 1) the family, represented by a male property owner (sexist and classist interpretation but a good first approximation in the day); and 2) the State. The rule about slaves, about how many votes a State received, etc., were just compromises. The core value is clear: families and States. The thought of some kind of purer Democracy was not really a focus at all. It was people and things that represented some kind of investment in the system which mattered. The swamp rat with a moldy home counted as much as a wealthy merchant, this was unfair in some direction under some interpretations, but again, as a first approximation, I think this is a good system. I think it’s quite excellent, actually.

A lot of the merit of this system is tied up with the racism, sexism, and classism of the time it originated. But I think it is a mistake to identify it with those problems. Again, in section (3), if we try to allocate votes fairly with respect to the issues people vote on, it’s really not at all clear how to manage this. If we think about people who hold some kind of investment in the system besides “I was born here” then they probably should have more of a say in how that system works.

There’s a moral hazard here that’s difficult to avoid when the kinds of laws open for question are exactly those which determine who gets to participate. A cabal buys up all the land, and now there are no new voters if we tie voting to “property ownership,” for example. And if women can own property and raise a family because he husband died, why can’t she vote? I mean even when the system manages to perfectly grab just the voters that are invested those voters have some perverse incentives.

If you can see those perverse incentives, can you also see any perverse incentives when Chicago can determine how the whole state of Illinois is represented? Why or why not?

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