A popular vote election takes all ballots that are cast, counts them, and declares the winner based on who received the most votes. In the case of a tie, there are contingencies in place to determine which person will serve in the elected office.
The discussion around using the popular vote for elections has increased since the results of the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the presidential election by securing 304 electoral votes, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 227 electoral votes. For the popular vote, however, Hillary Clinton received 65.8 million votes, while Donald Trump received 62.9 million votes.
In U.S. history, the electoral college winner has failed to secure the popular vote 5 times. Before the 2016 election, the largest vote deficit in the popular vote was Al Gore securing over 500,000 votes more than George W. Bush.
Here are the essential pros and cons of popular vote elections to examine.
List of the Pros of Using the Popular Vote
1. It gives each vote an equal amount of power.
Under the electoral college system of voting, the number of representatives a state has in Congress (Senators and Representatives) is the total number of electoral votes it is allowed. That means every state is allowed a minimum of 3 electoral votes. In 2016, Florida had 29 electoral votes and 9.4 million voters, created a voter value of 0.72. Wyoming had just 3 electoral votes, but only had 255,000 voters as well. That created a voter value of 2.85.
2. All other elections in the U.S. are through the popular vote.
The only election in the United States which is not governed by the popular vote is the presidential election. Mayors, governors, and senators are all elected by a simple majority. Under the electoral college, the majority votes of states assign electoral votes to a candidate, which then creates a majority total required for a victory. A popular vote election would bring the presidential election in line with the rest of the election structures.
3. It would eliminate the threat of a faithless elector.
A faithless elector in the United States is someone who casts an electoral ballot for someone other than the individuals to whom they are pledged. Even if states impose fines on faithless electors for their actions, it is not a guarantee that the behavior will stop. Although faithless electors have not affected the results or outcome of an election yet, in 2016, there were 7 faithless electors. Going to the popular vote would eliminate this issue altogether.
4. It could encourage voter turnout.
One of the biggest reasons why voters don’t vote is because they feel like their vote doesn’t count. Under the electoral college system, if a state consistently pulls as leaning to one party, someone who supports the other party may not vote because they feel like there isn’t a need to do so. Their vote only counts at the local level, not the national level, because of the electoral votes. Removing this system could encourage more people to come out to support their candidate.
5. Security would be improved across the country.
There are logistical issues that are managed at the local level in each election. Some areas may “bend” the rules of an election by extending voting hours illegally. Others may struggle to meet higher than expected voter turnout levels. If the election is based off a popular vote, each of these areas would need to be closely examined in real-time, which would enhance the security of each vote that is cast. There would be fewer opportunities to illegally alter the results of an election.
6. Battleground states would disappear in U.S. elections.
Under the current structure of the electoral college, the focus of a presidential campaign is on the so-called battleground states. These are the states that may go to either major party candidate in the election. That means some voters, like Republicans in California or Democrats in Mississippi, are voting without power and without attention from their preferred candidates each year. A switch to the popular vote would eliminate the concept of a battleground state because the issue would be more on issues than states.
7. It would eliminate the Congressional provisions for a non-majority election.
The electoral requires that an election which does not receive a majority of electoral votes be taken into the U.S. House of Representatives. At that stage, anyone who received an electoral vote is eligible to become the next president. Should that happen, then the final decision of who gets to serve as President of the United States is taken away from individual voters. It happened once, in 1876. Moving to the popular vote structure would eliminate this potential issue.
8. It could help to reduce partisanship.
Under the current structure of presidential elections in the U.S., the states become a battleground of red states vs. blue states. This divide creates natural divisions between groups of people who both support their country, but in different ways. If a popular vote were allowed to declare a winner instead, it wouldn’t be through a state-by-state counting of electoral votes. It would be a national mandate to put someone in office, even if that winning candidate received less than 50% of the vote.
9. It would eliminate superfluous votes.
Under the electoral college system (and other voting systems not based on popular voting), it only takes one extra vote more than the other candidate to create the needed results for the election. All other votes cast for that candidate are therefore superfluous. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had more than 10 million of these votes, while Donald Trump had more than 8.3 million, even though Trump won 30 states and Clinton won 20 and the District of Columbia. The popular vote eliminates this issue too.
List of the Cons of Using the Popular Vote
1. A close election would trigger the need for a full recount.
The cost of a presidential election in the United States is already several billion dollars. On a close popular vote, often defined as a difference of 0.5% or less in the tabulated results, an automatic recount would likely be triggered. That means the cost of counting all the votes would be duplicated. With the polarization in global politics today, especially in the United States, a switch to the popular vote would likely increase costs even further.
2. It would limit the influence of local issues in the election.
When a popular vote is held for a national office, the election becomes more about platform issues than local issues. Resource allocation would be focused on paid advertising, which would negate the need for grassroots activities. That would likely reduce the number of voters who cast a ballot in each election as most people are more concerned about local impacts than national policies.
3. There would be a reduced need to build coalitions.
With a popular vote in place, each election win would be decreed a mandate to follow the platform of the winning party. That would increase the amount of polarization being experienced in politics today because there would be less of a need to compromise. Even the minority party wouldn’t be encouraged to negotiate because they could simply stall until the next election. Less would get done, which would affect the needs of households at the local level.
4. It would reduce the influence of third parties on the U.S. presidential election.
Under the electoral college system, the candidates which receive the most votes in each state (or district) receive its assigned electoral votes. That means a candidate who receives a majority of their votes in a high-delegate state, such as California, could make a dramatic impact on the rest of the election. In 2016, Gary Johnson received 4.48 million votes and 0 electoral votes, but the potential is always there for this to happen. A popular vote structure would virtually eliminate the idea of a third-party candidate having a chance in an election.
5. It would reduce the threshold necessary to win the office.
If the presidential election were switched to the popular vote, then it would only take about 35% of the vote for a candidate to win. That is hardly a mandate for governing, though it would be taken as such. We’ve already seen this issue take place with the GOP primaries in 2016. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz often split about 60% of the GOP vote, which allowed Donald Trump to win early primaries with 35% of the vote.
6. Unexpected emergencies would be difficult to handle.
During a popular vote, a candidate who withdraws from the race or dies before the election can be held could still be on the ballot. That offers the possibility that someone unwilling or unable to hold the office could be elected. In U.S. history, there has been one vice-presidential candidate who died after being nominated and one that withdrew from their party’s ticket. Although the 20th Amendment to the Constitution provides clarity to this situation, that process is based on the electoral college. What would happen during a switch to the popular vote would be unknown.
7. It would reduce diversity in the election structures.
Although moving to a popular vote election would balance the weight of each vote, it would also create more sway in larger population states. People are moving to live in like-minded communities more than ever before. In the U.S., that means people who lean Democratic live in urban areas, while people who lean Republican live in rural areas. More people live in urban regions, which means they would have a constant sway over the election. Rural voters would almost always be in the minority.
8. Regional candidates could secure enough votes to win a national election.
Imagine a scenario where a presidential candidate focuses on Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, OR and Seattle. That’s a bank of about 14 million potential voters that reliably vote as a majority for Democratic candidates. Using a popular vote system, candidates could campaign regionally, targeting major areas of support, to secure enough votes to win an election. Without any sort of broad support, the politics of the country could become even more fractured than they already are.
9. It would require an Amendment in the U.S. for presidential elections.
Since the Constitution and the Bill of Rights became governing documents in the United States, there have only been 17 amendments made to it. The last amendment, the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, was ratified nearly 200 years after it was originally proposed. The amendment requires that any change to the rate of compensation for members of Congress can only take effect after a subsequent election in the House of Representatives. It isn’t impossible to pass a Constitutional amendment, though history shows that it is not an easy process to complete.
For the 7 presidential elections between 1992-2016, the Republican candidate has won the Electoral college 3 times. They have only won the popular vote once.
The pros and cons of the popular vote structure of an election allow for the majority to have their say in who they wish to serve. Although this may limit the amount of diversity that occurs in office, and may generate extra financial costs, the argument could be made that these risks outweigh the results of an election where a majority of states, not a majority of people, put someone into office.