How Donald Trumped Hillary

Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States—sort of.  Hillary Clinton got the most popular votes, i. e., candidates running for membership in the Electoral College pledged to vote for her if elected won more votes than candidates pledged to vote for Trump. But Donald Trump won the majority of the electors selected by the popular vote.  When the Electoral College votes to formally sect the next president of the United States on December 19, Donald Trump will win.

This may strike us as undemocratic, but then again, the Electoral College itself was never a democratic institution.  It was created mainly to satisfy the southern slave states’ political elites, who opposed electing the president by direct popular vote, for fear that if the president were elected directly by We—yes, I know that technically it should be “Us” when the first person plural pronoun is used as an object–the People, he would almost certainly be a northerner.

Southern fears were well justified, given both the population distribution and the structure of voting rights in 1787.  According to the first census, conducted in 1790, only three years after the Constitution was written and the Electoral College created, America’s total population was about 3.64 million, of whom 51% lived in the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line (the Pennsylvania-Maryland border).   But about 35% of the nation’s southerners were slaves, regarded as property, not people, and possessing neither voting nor any other rights.   Of the roughly 3 million free Americans, 60% lived north of it. 

Moreover, while the southern political elites denied the right to vote to African Americans (as did most of the northern states, too), they also denied it to more white men failing to meet various property requirements than did their northern counterparts.  Any electoral contest between a northern and a southern presidential contest, assuming ballots were cast along regional lines, would almost certainly produce a northern president.

One idea discussed at the Constitutional Convention was to have the Congress elect the president, given that most state governors were elected by state legislatures at the time.  This proposal, however, was opposed by those who feared it violated the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances.  So to elect the president, the Constitutional Convention created a separate Electoral College to which each state would send a number of electors equal to the total number of senators and representatives it could send to Congress.  Southerners liked this arrangement because it gave them more power than the number of voters as a percentage of the entire electorate would otherwise have given their region—each state was awarded two senators by the Constitution, no matter how small it was, and states were awarded representatives based on the total population of free citizens plus three-fifths the population of slaves, but not based on how many free citizens could actually vote.  The Electoral College has been with us ever since.  In 2016 it has 538 members, given that the Senate has 100 members and the House of Representatives 435, and the District of Columbia, since 1964, has been allowed 3 members.

All states now grant We the People the right to vote for presidential electors, and most states allot electors on a winner-take-all basis.  Candidates for membership are nominated by state parties which make party loyalty the main criterion for membership.  Trump, for example, won 52% of the popular vote in Texas, meaning the entire 38-member team of Republican candidates for membership in the Electoral College selected at the state Republican convention last May are considered elected and will go to Austin next month, presumably to vote for Trump for president (Texas has 2 senators and 36 representatives in Congress).

In most elections the electoral vote follows the popular vote, i. e., the same candidate wins both.  But occasionally one candidate can win the popular vote and the other the electoral vote.  This happened last week because Trump won many states and their electors by small margins while Clinton won fewer states, but by much greater margins.  Current election results give Trump at least 290 electoral votes and he may win an additional 16 should Michigan be called for him, but thanks to landslide victories in deep-blue states such as California, New York, and Massachusetts, Clinton has so far won almost 600,000 more popular votes than Trump. 

Political activists are currently attempting to persuade Electors chosen last week and pledged to Trump to vote for Clinton instead.  Since the Republican electors are Republican Party loyalists, few, if any, are likely to do so.  The historical record shows few instances of faithless electors, and none in which faithlessness changed the outcome of any presidential election.  This historical record, the premium put on party loyalty by state parties when selecting Electoral College candidates, and Trump’s wide margin of victory in the electoral vote all make it highly improbable that the Electoral College will select anyone other than Trump for President.

Even more improbable is that the Electoral College will be abolished in favor of direct popular election of the president any time soon.  Linking a state’s electoral vote to both the number of representatives plus the number of senators it elects to Congress continues to give smaller states more representation in the Electoral College than their populations might otherwise entitle it. To amend the Constitution requires the approval of 38 states.  The thirteen smallest states—enough to block any constitutional amendment—have a total population of about 16 million, or 5% of America’s population of 320 million.  Yet they have 49 electoral votes, or 9% of the total of 538.  Given that the smaller states have a bigger percentage of the electoral vote than they have of the total population, it is highly unlikely they will approve any scheme to abolish the Electoral College and thereby reduce their capacity to influence the outcome of presidential elections.

The Democrats have no reason to be happy with the outcome of this election.  Nor should the Republicans, given that they got fewer votes than the Democrats.  But rather than try to abolish the Electoral College, each party should probably work harder to find more votes next time—the Democrats to win enough to win the Electoral College, the Republicans to win more votes than the Democrats.  About 100,000,000 potentially eligible voters failed to go to the polls this election.  That’s where both the Democrats and the Republicans should begin their search as they gear up for 2020.

 Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Malcolm Cross should be required reading for everyone. His columns are always entertaining as well as educational. Thanks

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