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Reviewing the presidential election results, many commentators note that Donald Trump--like several previous Republican presidential candidates--prevailed in the electoral college without winning the popular vote. This is true, but it's also irrelevant. It's irrelevant legally because the Constitution provides for the election of a president through the electoral college. But it's also irrelevant in terms of the democratic legitimacy of the result.

In the election concluded Tuesday, Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Trump. This does not mean, however, that Clinton would necessarily have prevailed in an election that was determined solely by the popular vote. This is because the popular vote total is itself a product of the electoral college system. As a consequence, we do not know what the result would have been under a popular vote system, let alone whether Clinton would have prevailed.

The reason for this is because the electoral college system encourages the campaigns (and their surrogates and allies) to concentrate their efforts on swing states--those states in which the electoral votes are up for grabs--at the expense of those states in which one party or the other has no meaningful chance to prevail. The presidential campaigns make no meaningful effort to turn out votes in populous but non-competitive states such as California, New York and Texas. There is no advantage to running up the score in a state that is solidly in one camp, nor is there much benefit in trying to drive up turnout in pursuit of a hopeless cause.

For instance, a GOP campaign would invest little in trying to drive up the vote total in Texas or reducing the margin by which its candidate loses in New York or California, and ditto the Democratic campaign in reverse. Under a popular-vote system, on the other hand, every vote in every state would count equally, and campaigns would be likely to devote substantial resources driving up turnout in these same states. We don't have any particularly reliable guide as to what vote tallies such efforts would produce.

What all this means is that when the popular vote is reasonably close--as it was this year, as it was in 2000 and 2004--we cannot say with confidence that the candidate who won the popular vote under the electoral college system would also have won the popular vote under a popular-vote system. It's possible, but anything but certain. So while it's true that Clinton won the majority of popular votes cast, we don't know that she was actually the candidate voters would have picked were we to rely on the popular vote.


Jonathan Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.

Editorial on 11/10/2016

Print Headline: What about the vote?

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  • WhododueDiligence
    November 10, 2016 at 8:55 a.m.

    Yes, without the Electoral College, presidential election strategy would be completely different. It would favor the high-population states--California, Texas, New York and Florida.
    Last week Dana Kelley wrote an excellent column describing the historical reasoning for the Electoral College. This column by Jonathan Adler is a good reminder that we can't conclude--despite differing election results in electoral votes and total popular votes--with any certainty what would have happened if the Electoral College didn't exist.

  • kdc72701
    November 10, 2016 at 1:31 p.m.

    Anyway, the popular vote has to be close to have this result. So there is plenty of support for our President Elect.