Principled and historical reasons can be lodged for and against the Electoral College, but the present partisan divide indicates that both Democrats and Republicans believe that if the national popular vote had been determinative, Al Gore would have won the presidency in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, that should not be assumed because if the popular vote had controlled, the vote totals for the candidates would have been different.
With a direct election, all voters throughout the country would have had an equal incentive to vote because all votes would have mattered equally, which, of course, does not exist now. An additional 50,000 votes for Trump or Clinton in New York or California or Texas would have changed nothing under our present system. With the direct election of the president, voters in safe states would have more incentive to go to the polls than now, and we would probably have more voters. My guess is that the minority candidate in a “safe” district would especially benefit. Where I vote, Democratic candidates are almost assured of winning not only the presidential vote, but also for all the other ballot spots. For many people, it is more satisfying to vote for winners than losers. If I had supported Trump, it would have taken some unusual strength to do the dispiriting thing of walking the block to the local junior high to fill in the bubble in front of Trump’s name because he was going to lose New York overwhelmingly. But, of course, the comparable dispirited Clinton supporter also existed in Alabama and Mississippi. I don’t know how the totals would have changed, but if the Electoral College had not existed in 2016, I am confident the totals would have been different from what got tallied as the total popular vote.
The direct election of the president would probably increase the number of voters. It would definitely change the nature of the campaigns. With hindsight, Hillary Clinton was criticized for not campaigning in Wisconsin. That criticism is understandable. She polled 27,000 fewer votes than Trump there giving Trump won the Badger State’s ten electoral votes. The critics’ assumption is that if Clinton had campaigned harder in the Dairy State (should a state be allowed two nicknames?), she might have switched some Trump voters to her or, more likely, convinced some who voted Libertarian or Green to vote for her. And perhaps more campaigning would have meant that some of those who sat on their hands would have come out to vote for her. If her campaign had brought one percent more to the polls to vote for her, she would have won Wisconsin.
That one percent, however, would have been about thirty thousand more votes. With a direct election, this extra targeting might not make sense, and Clinton probably would have spent more time in several other states where she, and Trump, did little campaigning—California and New York. Candidates do visit these states, but usually for fundraising, not traditional campaigning. The assumption under our present system is that both these states are safe for the Democrats and campaigning there by both sides is a waste of time. If the national popular vote controlled, however, both Hillary and Donald would have made campaign efforts in these states since an increase of a one percent turnout for the candidates in those places could mean 100,000 or more votes to the national total.
The abolition of the Electoral College would not just mean a change in the location of campaign efforts, it would also make a difference in campaign promises. Think about Iowa and the primaries. Don’t all candidates swear to defend ethanol because they think defending the corn crop is high on the list of Iowa voters? If Michigan is viewed as a swing state, candidates appearing in Lansing or Battle Creek can be expected to make promises that especially appeal to Michigan voters. In safe states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, candidates do not have to make the kind of pandering promises they make in swing states. If, however, each vote truly mattered as much in Mississippi as in Michigan, candidates might have the same incentive to pander in both places.
But under the system we have, and I expect that we will continue to have, each vote for president is not equal. The swing states count more and get more from the candidates.
As a result, however we view the structure of our government, we should not refer to it as a democracy.