Hillary wins popular vote; Trump wins proportional electoral college — maybe

a-electoral-college-map-2012-v-finalAs both Democrats, some Republicans and backers of third-party candidates look for ways to tweak the Electoral College for a different outcome to the 2016 presidential election, at least one picture is muddy. In particular, there is controversy over who, if anyone, would win the election if each states electors were divided proportionally according to the popular vote in that states.

Occasional Planet has previously written about a proportional vote of electors. If democracy is the popular vote of the people, which it is in the United States for every election except that for President and Vice-President, then proportional electoral voting is just another way of stifling direct democracy. But there are some political scientists, philosophers and practitioners who think that it is good policy because it reduces the total disparity between electoral votes and popular votes. For instance, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won 47.9% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 46.7%. That 1.2% difference in Clinton’s favor amounts to nearly 1.6 million actual votes. That is not inconsequential.

As for the electoral vote, it finally appears that Michigan will go for Donald Trump. That being the case, he will win 306 electoral votes or 57% and Clinton would garner 232 electoral votes of 43%. So the electoral college has a separation of fourteen percentage points, and in favor of Trump, but the popular vote difference is only 1.2%, and this time in favor of Clinton. So the electoral college is a distortion in terms of both quality (who won?) and quantity (by how much?).

When we examined proportional electoral voting in the 2012 presidential election, we found that Barack Obama would have won in such a system, just as he won the popular vote and the standard electoral vote. Using the same methodology as in 2012, our calculations show Donald Trump winning in a proportionally apportioned electoral college by a slender 272-266 margin. If the idea of a proportional representation in the electoral college is to make it more democratic or more like the popular vote, it would have failed. Below are the state-by-state results.

PROPORTIONAL ELECTORAL VOTES BY STATE, 2016

StateElectoral VotesClinton VotesTrump Votes
Alabama936
Alaska312
Arizona1156
Arkansas624
California553421
Colorado954
Connecticut743
D.C.330
Delware321
Florida291415
Georgia1679
Hawaii431
Idaho413
Illinois20128
Indiana1147
Iowa624
Kansas624
Kentucky835
Louisiana835
Maine422
Maryland1064
Massachusetts1174
Michigan1679
Minnesota1055
Mississippi624
Missouri1046
Montana312
Nebraska523
Nevada633
New Hampshire422
New Jersey1486
New Mexico532
New York291712
North Carolina1578
North Dakota312
Ohio18810
Oklahoma725
Oregon743
Pennsylvania201010
Rhode Island431
South Carolina945
South Dakota312
Tennesee1147
Texas381721
Utah624
Vermont321
Virginia1376
Washington1275
Weat Virginia523
Wisconsin1055
Wyoming312
Total Electoral Vote538266272
Percentage of Popular Vote100%49%51%

There is a different view of how the election would have come out had there been proportional voting in the electoral college. “rrk” commented to Occasional Planet, “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.” In this scenario, Clinton would have had the plurality of electoral votes, but still over twelve short of the majority. With no candidate having a majority, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives. The rules governing that are complicated, but they would have resulted in a Trump presidency, perhaps at a cost to Mr. Trump.

While there has been considerable interest in proportional voting in the electoral college, we can see that would give us neither a democratic nor proportional result. It leaves us with two possible solutions.

The first is a straight popular vote, which is the fairest, but would require a constitutional amendment. The main benefit of the constitution amendment is that it would be difficult to repeal. The other option is the “National Popular Vote” in which any combination of states with 270 electoral votes would decide to vote for whomever won the national popular vote. This could be readily accomplished before 2020, but the downside is that it could easily be changed.

Looking for a proportional electoral college vote is the kind of distraction that often keeps us from strengthening our democracy. We need to emulate all other forms of electoral democracy in the United States; the direct popular vote.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (432 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.


  • Kenneth Perkins

    In the scenario where minor party candidates would pick up enough votes to prevent a major party candidate from getting to 270, but not enough to have a realistic shot at winning a House vote, is there any reason why a minor party candidate couldn’t release/advise his/her electors to vote for one of the viable candidates to prevent a House vote?