So it actually happened. Once again, the pollsters were wrong. Right before the results started coming in, Donald Trump’s odds were seven to one to become the President. After a few hours, Hillary Clinton had drifted out to eight to one, and as the night wore on, it became clear that Trump was edging closer to victory. As soon as Florida went red, for the first time in eight years, it was game over. This was confirmed the following morning, as Trump managed to get to the magic 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the Presidency – despite losing the popular vote by over 600,000 votes.
So, how did Trump get elected if he had fewer votes than Clinton? That is thanks to the American system of indirect elections. When people cast a vote for their candidate, they are actually not voting for that candidate. Instead, they are voting for the candidates to be represented in a system called the Electoral College, consisting of mostly nameless electors who are faithful to that party. Confused? So are most people. In a few weeks, these electors will gather in each state and submit their votes to elect a new President and Vice President. It is only then that Donald Trump is actually elected and confirmed as President. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of representatives from that state in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
While Hamilton’s intentions may have been applicable and appropriate for society in 1788, the modern reality has shown this system needs revision.
The system was designed by the founding fathers to ensure that, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. This century has seen two instances of a President losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College: the 2000 Election of George W. Bush over Al Gore and now Trump’s victory over Clinton. While Hamilton’s intentions may have been applicable and appropriate for society in 1788, the modern reality has shown this system needs revision.
All states bar Nebraska and Maine implement a winner-takes-all system for the Electoral College votes. What this means is that if a candidate wins a state by even the smallest of margins, they receive all of the Electoral College votes from that State. For example, here in Florida, Trump received 49.1 per cent of the vote (4,605,515 votes) while Clinton received 47.8 per cent of the vote (4,485,745 votes). While there’s roughly only 120,000 votes between them, Trump claimed all 29 of Florida’s Electoral College votes. This is why elections are focused so heavily in a few swing states. In these states, the difference in votes between candidates may be very small, but it is possible to claim a lot of Electoral College votes with a narrow victory.
The fact that Trump led such a divisive campaign, and lost the popular vote, has led to renewed calls for the end of the Electoral College and the introduction of a straightforward popular vote for President. It is argued that this will force potential candidates to focus their efforts across the entire United States, and not just the few swing states that tip the balance in the Electoral College. It will also mean that people who live in a state that reliably votes a different way to them – a Texan Democrat for example – will have a vote that has more of an impact on the result of the election.
Clearly, there is a large divide between the young and old in the United States, and it will take more than Electoral College reform to solve it.
So, where do we go from here? Clearly, the original purpose of the Electoral College is not applicable to modern American politics. Of course, nothing will change in the short-term, and the status quo will likely remain until a politician who does not benefit from the system is elected, so we may be waiting quite some time.
However, it seems certain that there is a generational split in voting, and as time passes, perhaps we will see call for change. In Florida, charts show a largely red, but the little patches of blue coincide with where major universities are located across Florida. Charts showing what the Electoral College would have returned if only millennials had voted paint a blue, not red, picture. Clearly, there is a large divide between the young and old in the United States, and it will take more than Electoral College reform to solve it.