What if electoral votes were awarded proportionally? — updates

ElectoralCollege2012.svg-aThe selection process of party nominees for president of the United States reveals many of the undemocratic components of the American political system. As we near the end of March, we have another slew of state caucuses. Only a tiny fraction of voters attends these burdensome meetings. For example, In the state of Nevada, there are nearly 1.5 million registered voters but only 11.984 Democrats and 74,078 Republicans engaged in the February, 2016 caucuses. That’s a participation rate of under 6%.

Democrats award delegates proportionally according to the popular votes of the candidates. But Republicans have numerous Winner-Take-All (WTA) states including large ones from March 15 such as Florida and Ohio. They have upcoming WTA primaries in Arizona, Wisconsin, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich won 46.8% of the votes but collected 100% of the delegates. If this seems unfair, it is no different from the actual method that we have for electing our president on Election Day. We call it the Electoral College.

Three times in our nation’s history we have “elected” presidents who won the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. As FactCheck reports:

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election (by a margin of one electoral vote), but he lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots to Samuel J. Tilden.

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison received 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, winning the presidency. But Harrison lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes.

In 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the general election and became the 43rd president, but he didn’t win the popular vote either. Al Gore holds that distinction, garnering about 540,000 more votes than Bush. However, Bush won the electoral vote, 271 to 266.

Most reformers would like to see changes to the way in which we elect or presidents. If we go back to our last presidential election, the record shows that President Barack Obama was reelected in 2012 by defeating Mitt Romney in the Electoral College by a vote of 332 to 206. Even though Obama won the popular vote by a single percentage point (50% to 49%), many consider the election to be a landslide, because Obama’s margin in the Electoral College was 62% to 38%.

What’s wrong with the way things are?

There are those who would like to see the Electoral College abolished. It has several clear shortcomings. First and most importantly, it is not based on the popular vote of the people. As recently as 2000, Democrat Al Gore received more than a half million more votes than George Bush. However, with the shenanigans in Florida, Bush won the Electoral College, 271-266. In a country that prides itself on one person-one vote, this was clearly a travesty.

Second, in recent elections, approximately ten states have been considered swing states. This means that there is considerable uncertainty about whether they will go to the Democratic or the Republican candidate. The remaining forty states are considered to be solidly for one candidate or the other. They are considered to be sure bets for one candidate or the other. This is what happened in 2012.

The three largest states in the country, California, Texas, and New York (actually tied in size with swing state Florida at 29 votes) were essentially ignored by the candidates, except for fund raising purposes. California and New York were solidly for President Obama; Texas for Governor Romney. The 82.6 million voters in these states, representing one-fourth of the population of the entire country, received virtually no visits from the candidates. There were no big rallies or parades in these states. The citizens had no value to the candidates, except for a few fat cats who provided money to the candidates’ campaigns, or the Super PACs that worked on their behalf.

Abolish the Electoral College?

The idea of abolishing the Electoral College has been around for a long time and it makes a lot of sense since we’re talking about a national election. However, the existence of the Electoral College is clearly stated in the Constitution. Article II, Section says:

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed.

To change this would require a constitutional amendment. The process for that would be for an amendment to be proposed in either the Senate or the House and then have it approved by two-thirds of the members of each chamber. That is hardly the end of it; the proposed amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states, meaning now thirty-eight of the fifty states. Amending the U.S. Constitution is a cumbersome process and has not happened since 1992 when the 27th Amendment was passed. It was a relatively minor one regarding congressional salaries.

Award electoral votes proportionally by state popular vote?

The other way to change how we vote for president would be for each state to change the way it instructs its electors vote. Forty-eight states require that all electors in their state vote for the candidate who received the largest popular vote in their state. The other two states, Maine and Nebraska, use a somewhat different system, which at most can only change one electoral vote for the entire state. However, if each of the states agreed to allot their electors proportionally to the popular vote in the state, we would have a completely different outcome from what normally happens in presidential elections. It would be very close to the outcome of a popular vote election:

2012 Electoral Vote: Obama 62%; Romney 38%

2012 Popular Vote: 50%, Romney 49%

2012 Proportional Electoral Vote by State: Obama 51%, Romney 49%

Beneath these numbers is the reality that with proportional electoral voting by state, the outcome would be just one percent different from the popular vote. It would be much closer to the will of the people than the present Electoral College. It would clearly be a much more democratic process. However, this method would only work if all fifty states agreed to allocate their electors proportionally. The likelihood of that would be less than that of passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with the popular vote.

Some people have suggested proportional electoral voting in each state. However, the conclusion is that while it would advance the cause of democracy, it is not a realistic proposal. Until both the federal Congress and the state legislatures see the wisdom of amending the constitution to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote, we will continue to have both an undemocratic system and one in which one candidate can win the popular vote and another the Electoral College. There has to be a better way to build a democracy.


StateElectoral VotesObama VotesRomney Votes
New Hampshire422
New Jersey1486
New Mexico532
New York291910
North Carolina1578
North Dakota312
Rhode Island431
South Carolina945
South Dakota312
Weat Virginia523
Total Electoral Vote538276264
Percentage of Popular Vote100%51%49%



This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to 2016.

  • Stacy Mergenthal

    You make some great, salient points. Though it would certainly mean a steep, uphill climb and a major political battle, eliminating the electoral college in favor of the popular vote is a more fair, more democratic process. This should include the primaries, of course. The electoral college unnecessarily complicates matters, and as you point out we “elected” one of our worst presidents by those means. We already count each vote, let us leave it at that.

  • toto

    Any state that enacts the proportional approach on its own would reduce its own influence. This was the most telling argument that caused Colorado voters to agree with Republican Governor Owens and to reject this proposal in November 2004 by a two-to-one margin.

    The political reality is that campaign strategies in ordinary elections are based on trying to change a reasonably achievable small percentage of the votes—1%, 2%, or 3%. As a matter of practical politics, only one electoral vote would be in play in almost all states. A system that requires even a 9% share of the popular vote in order to win one electoral vote is fundamentally out of sync with the small-percentage vote shifts that are involved in real-world presidential campaigns.

    If a current battleground state, like Colorado, were to change its winner-take-all statute to a proportional method for awarding electoral votes, presidential candidates would pay less attention to that state because only one electoral vote would probably be at stake in the state.

    If states were to ever start adopting the whole-number proportional approach on a piecemeal basis, each additional state adopting the approach would increase the influence of the remaining states and thereby would decrease the incentive of the remaining states to adopt it. Thus, a state-by-state process of adopting the whole-number proportional approach would quickly bring itself to a halt, leaving the states that adopted it with only minimal influence in presidential elections.

    The proportional method also easily could result in no candidate winning the needed majority of 270 electoral votes. That would throw the process into Congress to decide the election, regardless of the popular vote in any state or throughout the country.

    If the whole-number proportional approach had been in use throughout the country in the nation’s closest recent presidential election (2000), it would not have awarded the most electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. Instead, the result would have been a tie of 269–269 in the electoral vote, even though Al Gore led by 537,179 popular votes across the nation. The presidential election would have been thrown into Congress to decide and resulted in the election of the second-place candidate in terms of the national popular vote.

    A system in which electoral votes are divided proportionally by state would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote and would not make every voter equal.

    It would penalize fast-growing states that do not receive any increase in their number of electoral votes until after the next federal census. It would penalize states with high voter turnout (e.g., Utah, Oregon).

    Moreover, the fractional proportional allocation approach, which would require a constitutional amendment, does not assure election of the winner of the nationwide popular vote. In 2000, for example, it would have resulted in the election of the second-place candidate.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

  • toto

    Instead, by state laws, without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


  • Arthur Lieber

    Toto, this is extremely enlightening. Everything that you say makes sense to me at first glance. I want to take time to read it more thoroughly and I’ll get back. But thanks so much for this analysis. I obviously want to learn more about the National Popular Vote bill.

  • Arthur Lieber

    Toto, I have to say that upon looking at this more closely, you’ve made me a believer. We are doing a lot of work here in St. Louis with high school and middle school students, and many are quite frustrated with the obstacles to democracy. We’ll be sure to emphasize the National Popular Vote concept to students as we move ahead.

  • A_Master_of_the_Obvious

    Speaking of the federal census, did you know that the number of electors a state has is based on the “whole population” of the state as based on the census, and not the population of citizens of the United States in that state? Effectively, this means that states like California, with large illegal/undocumented/non-citizen populations receive as many as 6 extra electoral college votes as well as extra representatives in the house of representatives due to their non-citizen population. Therefore, even though undocumented non-citizens can not technically vote for president, they do influence the election.

  • Darrell

    What FactCheck.fails to point out is that in 1824 John Quincy Adams failed to win the popular vote OR the electoral college,but but because of all the maneuvering and shenanigans, was “handed” the presidency (WITHOUT WINNING ANYTHING!) by the House.

  • Darrell Clark

    Who cares? The whole idea is NOT TO INCLUDE STATE INFLUENCE!

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  • Mark Mariluch

    This is great information. Please add proportional vote data for the 2016 election.

  • Ty

    I am outraged! We should not stand for this as a nation!

  • Arthur Lieber

    Will try to do that. Thanks!

  • Sam Miller

    I noticed that the proportional votes used here were directly proportional. I’d be more interested in seeing an overall proportional system that works in a similar way that (I believe) Maine does. However, with a slight change. Since the electoral college number of votes is based on the number of people a state has in congress, I think it’d be interesting to see the electoral votes delegated in a similar manner. I.E. The number of congress people is a proportional representation of how people voted, and then the number of senators (2) goes to the winner of the popular vote in the state. I think it would preserve the weighting the electoral college gives to less populous states, but also provides something closer to the will of the people.
    I’m interested to know what the numbers would look like in the last several elections and if such a system would in fact work out more fairly or if it would end up severely favoring one party.
    If it would work out somewhat fair though, it’s something to ponder.
    It would motivate candidates to compete in all states since the margin or victory would matter more, it would still keep some swing states since there would also be closer margins in somewhere like Florida compared to California. In effect, candidates would be competing for every little electoral and popular vote in order to make the difference, rather than only the popular vote in swing states.
    As a result I think it would also force candidates to address their supporters in states that are currently solid. I.E. A Republican president would need to support those people who got him that 21 electoral votes in California rather than writing that state off since it did nothing for him. The same holds true for a Democrat president who would need to support those people who got him that 17 votes in Texas rather than writing that state off since it did nothing for him.

    In its ideal form, it would pressure presidents to provide greater benefits to the country as a whole rather than the predictable areas that favor them. i.e. Urban for Dems and Rural for Republicans.
    As of now Republicans in Blue states and Democrats in Red states really aren’t getting a say, but even more so they aren’t getting attention they deserve for supporting the candidate.

    My theory in such a system is that it keeps the best parts of the electoral college that small states would favor, and yet provides a little more fairness for big states with larger populations. And in the end the people everywhere ultimately win.

    OK, now proceed to tell me all of the flaws I didn’t think of. (Also I’m thinking in terms of ideal here, not necessarily how realistic)

  • Arthur Lieber

    Sam, I think that your ideas make a lot of sense. The one problem is that the more complicated it becomes, the more difficult it is to explain to the American people. I think that we’ve seen that the attention span of many Americans is rather limited, so this could be a tough challenge.

    What they would more likely understand would be the direct popular vote. Instead of just battleground states, candidates would go to North Dakota and California alike. In may ways states are anachronisms and I think that we have to find ways to move beyond them.

  • rrk

    i did the arithmetic for those of you who can’t wait for Mr. Lieber.
    No rounding. Multiply to three digits. for example… Rhode Island 4 votes, DJT 1.592, HRC 2.216. Final total was DJT 253.114, HRC 257.43. the 5% that is missing went to the third party candidates.

  • MadHungarian

    I find it hard to believe that National Popular Vote will be enacted or will survive a constitutional challenge if it is. First off, many of the remaining states have actually voted it down, or the bill has died in a committee. Second, the main issue is that it will necessarily lead to situations where the electors in a state will be forced to vote counter to the popular vote in that state. That LOOKS undemocratic, and it will get challenged.

    Simply eliminating the winner take all rule, though, effectively enacts a compromise between the small and big state interests. The possibility of a difference between the popular vote outcome and the EC outcome would be greatly diminished, but the small states would still have more electoral votes per capita than big ones.

  • toto

    State legislatures are not stagnant.
    Legislators come and go.
    Legislators evolve and educate themselves.

    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 every state surveyed recently. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range – in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

    In state polls of voters each with a second question that specifically emphasized that their state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states, not necessarily their state’s winner, there was only a 4-8% decrease of support.

    Question 1: “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?”

    Question 2: “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
    South Dakota — 75% for Question 1, 67% for Question 2.
    Connecticut — 74% for Question 1, 68% for Question 2,
    Utah — 70% for Question 1, 66% for Question 2,
    see http://tinyurl.com/3vrfxyh
    see http://tinyurl.com/3jdkx7x
    see http://tinyurl.com/3nv8djt


  • toto

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

  • MadHungarian

    “State legislatures are not stagnant.” True. They are becoming more Republican. Which, IMO, reduces the likelihood they will want to cut out their ability to override the popular vote , i.e. to override CA and NY, let’s be honest about what it’s about here.

  • toto

    New York and California together cast 15.7% of the national popular vote in 2012.
    About 62% Democratic in CA, and 64% in NY.

    Newt Gingrich summarized his support for the National Popular Vote bill by saying: “No one should become president of the United States without speaking to the needs and hopes of Americans in all 50 states. … America would be better served with a presidential election process that treated citizens across the country equally. The National Popular Vote bill accomplishes this in a manner consistent with the Constitution and with our fundamental democratic principles.”

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).

    On February 4, 2016 the Arizona House of Representatives passed the bill 40-16-4.
    Two-thirds of the Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Arizona House of Representatives sponsored the bill.
    In January 2016, two-thirds of the Arizona Senate sponsored the bill.

    On February 12, 2014, the Oklahoma Senate passed the bill by a 28–18 margin.

  • Bob

    In the proportional data, were the two Electoral ballots that each state has representing Senators awarded to the ‘winning’ candidate or one to each?

  • Arthur Lieber

    I’ll be putting up a new post in the next day or so. I did not round and I did not include third party candidates because I couldn’t see how they would qualify for any votes. I came up with Trump having 272 and Clinton 266, thus making a proportional electoral college at odds with the popular vote.

  • Kenneth Perkins

    Why not? McMullin got 21% in Utah, that should be 1 vote there (rounding up from 0.84 if you give 2 votes to the state winner or rounding down from 1.26 using the total 6). Johnson got about 3.36% in CA (rounding up to 2 from 1.848 or 1.7808 depending on whether you use 55 or 53) and 3.16% in TX (rounding down to 1 from 1.2008 or 1.1376 depending on whether you use 38 or 36). Stein got 1.78% in CA (rounding up to 1 from 0.979 or 0.9434).

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  • Mike

    Simple solution . There are 50 states plus D.C. Total votes 51. Who ever wins the state gets one vote. Winner would be declared when one candidate wins 26 states. The state would cast its vote via the sec of state of said state. This method makes every state important and will reflect the majority of the nation.

  • if you change it to congressional district instead of directly proportional votes by states you still have so called “gerrymandering” making an impact. When you go to the direct proportional votes it bypasses that, and is a more authentic representation of each states’ political demographics while still maintaining the intent and purpose of electoral college

  • Tom Seim

    If this were done for the 2016 election neither Clinton nor Trump would have had the required 270 electoral votes to with it, sending the election to the House of Representatives. For instance, the two of them only got 94% of the votes in California, leaving 3 electoral votes (Johnson would have gotten 2, Stein 1). My analysis shows that 25 electoral votes would have gone for Johnson and Stein overall. Third party candidates can really upset what would otherwise be a straight forward election, especially in 1992 when Ross Perot got 19% of the vote (including mine). Bush likely would have won it in the House. Be careful of what you wish for!

  • Car9675

    Sure, that would work, but first, you would have to redraw state boundaries so that each state had approximately the same population. I’m sure Montandakowyobraska will be happy with your decision.

  • TheTruth12123

    If this is done im sure the major parties would put in 10% or 15% clauses in it to prevent 100 candidates from manipulating the election

  • Tom Seim

    This is a typical reaction of someone who really hasn’t considered the unintended consequences. You are saying that valid candidates SHOULD NOT be awarded their hard-won electors. How dictatorial!

  • TheTruth12123

    if something like this wasnt put into place under this system we would have 100 candidates running for president and nobody would ever reach 270 making congress choose the winner ever time

  • michaelfeinstein

    This article makes no sense because to actually award votes proportionally, votes would have to be cast with fractions – and that is the case in most states where there are only two candidates on the ballot, let along in states with four or five on the ballot. Thirty states have less than ten Electoral College votes and 41 have less than 15. There simply not enough Electoral College votes to go around to render an accurate result. The so-called ‘proportional route’ is a non-starter

  • Tom Seim

    Each state INDIVIDUALLY decides how electors are appointed – you cannot guarantee anything of the sort, making the possibility of unintended consequences a very real possibility (which is different from a likelihood). Remember, the 12th Amendment was necessary to fix the original system.

  • Max Standridge

    Would just like to comment that I think it’s possible that the Proportional method might still be somewhat productive even if it were not applied by all 50 states. The one thing it could do to improve things, without being in use by all 50, would be if it were applied to the most populous and/or most likely to be Swing states–Florida, CA, OH, TX. If votes were awarded Proportionally in those mammoth states, elections might proceed more smoothly and outcomes might become available more quickly and without so much controversy. FL and OH have historically been major Swing states and deciders of elections. They get a bit too much attention AFTER election night. In another light, CA and TX have become just huge population wise. The counting of votes is such a gargantuan task with so much population bearing down on a State-level government. By awarding Electors by percentage, we’d spare some confusion and maybe some costs to those big states. One Site has argued that if Proportional were applied to all 50 states at this point, it would hurt the Democratic Party more than the Republicans. But from what I could see, if we limited its application like we have the other two, to not all the States, we’d get a result that might be more democratic while still giving a voice to the small states, which seems to be the issue that prevents Abolition from going over.

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