I have friends in Wyoming who will not vote for a president this November. They know their vote will not count toward the election, so, as an act of protest, they’re not voting at all. I utterly disagree with this repudiation of the most basic American right — in my opinion, it is the duty and privilege of every eligible American citizen to vote — but I do understand the sentiment.
The president and vice president of the United States are not elected by a plurality of the popular vote: They are elected by the Electoral College, a group of 538 people selected from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. to represent those places in the election.
The number of electors from each state is equal to the combined number of senators and representatives. In Wyoming, we have three electors because we have two senators and one representative. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, Delaware and Washington, D.C. all also have just three electoral votes. Colorado has nine, Pennsylvania has 20, Texas has 38.
For 48 states, including Wyoming, it is winner-take-all in the Electoral College. Whoever wins the popular vote in each of these states receives all the electoral votes. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, 174,419 Wyoming residents voted for Donald Trump, 55,973 residents voted for Hillary Clinton, 13,287 voted for Gary Johnson and 12,170 people voted for other candidates. Because Donald Trump won a plurality of votes, he got all three electoral votes, which made moot the votes of 81,430 Wyoming residents.
This was the case for some 52 million Americans in 2016 — more than one-third of the total number of voters. Some 63 million American citizens voted for Donald Trump and 73 million voted for Hillary Clinton or some other candidate.
Despite that, due to the winner-take-all approach by 48 states, Mr. Trump became president because he was the first to receive 270 electoral votes, the magic number (majority of 538 total votes). Note that nearly 250 million people were eligible to vote in 2016 and only 136 million actually cast ballots; 114 million Americans, 45% of the country, failed to perform their most basic civic duty.
The Electoral College is written into the Constitution (Article II, Section 1), but the winner-take-all approach is not. States are allowed to choose how they award their electoral votes.
Many scholars, including myself, believe the winner-take-all approach is not merely undemocratic, but unconstitutional and self-evidently unfair.
Presidential campaigns essentially ignore all states where the electoral outcome is obvious (Wyoming will go Republican, Maryland will go Democratic), and focus instead on six key swing states: Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida. Combined, those states represent 101 of the 270 electoral votes needed to take the White House.
In the 2016 election, both Trump and Clinton spent 99% of their ad dollars and 95% of their campaign visits on these six states and eight others considered potential swing states. In 2020, you haven’t seen Biden spend much time or treasure on Texas, and Trump has ignored California, but both have invested heavily in Florida. Since both candidates know they must win the electoral votes in swing states, and because of winner-take-all, they essentially ignore the other 44 states in the union.
Three of the swing states are located in the Great Lakes region, the other three in the Sun Belt. These six states do not accurately represent the needs and wants, hopes or dreams of voters in other parts of the country — the Northeast, Northwest, Midwest and some of the Mountain West. Wyoming and many other states are essentially ignored as a result.
There is a way out of this electoral mess: States should abandon winner-take-all and apportion electoral votes according to actual votes. If a candidate wins 60% of the popular vote in a given state, then he or she receives 60% of the electoral votes. This change has not happened because of partisan biases.
There is one way out of this electoral maze short of a constitutional amendment: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — an agreement in which states award their electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. Fifteen states and Washington DC have ratified this agreement, accounting for 196 electoral votes. In five more states, another 64 electoral votes, a decision on the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is pending. If these five states ratify NPVIC, we will only need a couple more states to do so, and winner-take-all will be history.
I hope to see that occur. We need a system in which our rights and responsibilities match the value of our vote.