Every state except Nebraska and Maine, whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state wins all the electors from that state, no matter what the margin of victory. In addition to 2016, there have been four other times in American history – 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 – when the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote. Each time, a Democratic presidential candidate lost the election due to this system.
In November 2000, newly elected New York Sen. Hillary Clinton promised that when she took office in 2001, she would introduce a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, the 18th-century, state-by-state, winner-take-all system for selecting the president. She never pursued her promise – a decision that must haunt her today. In this year’s election, she won at least 600,000 more votes than Donald Trump, but lost by a significant margin in the Electoral College. Trump won Pennsylvania and Florida by a combined margin of about 200,000 votes to earn 49 electoral votes. Clinton, meanwhile, won Massachusetts by almost a million votes but earned only 11 electoral votes.
The real reason we have an Electoral College: to protect slave states
“In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time.” Professor Akhil Reed Amar is the Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale University. A specialist in constitutional law, Amar is among America’s five most-cited legal scholars under the age of 60.
These elections were decided, in large part, by the extra electoral votes created by slavery. Without the 13 extra electoral votes created by Southern slavery, John Adams would’ve won even in 1800, and every federalist knows that after the election. And yet when the Constitution is amended, the slavery bias is preserved. As a matter of public education, most people are not taught the slavery story. They’re taught that the Electoral College was about, say, federalism and institutional checks. They’re not told that the Electoral College was not the framers’ finest hour.
At Philadelphia, the leading lawyer in America, James Wilson, proposed direct elections. Wilson was one of only six people to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He wrote the words “We the people” in the document. He’s one of the first five associate justices on the Supreme Court. And he was for a direct election. When he advocated this, James Madison’s immediate response was: In principle, you’re right, but the South won’t go for it because they’ll lose every time because they won’t be able to count their slaves.
Are there any serious reform efforts underway?
Akhil Reed Amar: There is one that’s afoot called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and it’s an idea that several states have already endorsed. Under this idea, state legislatures have agreed that if enough other state legislatures agree, they will give their state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. Right now, only blue states have signed on to this. No red states have, and that partisan divide may be likely to intensify because Republicans might think the current Electoral College system favors them given the results in 2000 and this year.