Two million and still counting

The news coverage has moved on to the Trump transition, but several states continue patiently counting their votes from the 8 November presidential election. Another 72,000 or so were added yesterday in eight states; the largest share, as always, from California, which found another 24,575 for Hillary Clinton and just 8,748 for Donald Trump. (I’m using David Leip’s excellent election atlas for the latest figures.)

Clinton now has 50.83% of the nationwide two-party vote, a drop of only 1.14% from Barack Obama’s total in 2012. In raw numbers, that’s a drop of just under 1.5 million votes, while Trump has gained about the same number compared to Mitt Romney last time. The increase in the total vote so far – about five million votes – roughly matches the increase in the third-party vote.

Clinton’s lead has just passed the two million vote mark (2.095 million, in fact), by far the biggest lead ever by a losing candidate, although Samuel Tilden in 1876 had 51.5% (two-party) of a very much smaller electorate.

I don’t know how many more votes there are to count in California; the summary from the Secretary of State’s office reports almost 1.5 million ballots outstanding as of a day ago, but most of those are provisionals, many of which will be rejected. Still, there must be a fair way to go, since the total has only just passed the 2012 figure and the state’s population has increased by about 4% in that time.

There’s probably not much to come elsewhere, although you can’t be sure: Alaska surprisingly produced another 18,000 yesterday (more than 5% of its total), among which Trump led by about 1,800.

But as long as it’s substantially Californian votes coming in, that will increase Clinton’s lead in relative as well as absolute terms. And no-one will care: the right-wing commentariat already dismisses California as not being “real” America. The fact that Trump has a majority in aggregate in the other 49 states is enough, in their eyes, to confer legitimacy.

A slightly more sophisticated version of this argument is to say that if elections were decided by popular vote instead of the electoral college, Trump would have campaigned differently and would have won a lot more votes in places like California and New York. This, of course, is true, but it applies equally well the other way: Clinton too would have campaigned in a much wider range of states, and there’s no reason to think that one effect would have been substantially greater than the other.

If Clinton had finished with, say, 50.1 or 50.2% – the sort of vote that Al Gore got in 2000, or Andrew Peacock in Australia back in 1990 – it’d be easier to dismiss it as so close to level as didn’t matter. But 50.8% is rather a different matter. An awful lot of elections worldwide are won with margins less than that.

Defenders of the electoral college, however, seem quite unfazed. They continue to babble about the importance of candidates having to secure broad support across the nation, which is completely irrelevant. Given the existence of the electoral college, the argument about breadth provides some basis for weighting it in favor of smaller states, but that’s not the major source of unfairness. And in any case, if you want to give people in smaller states a bigger say, you could just give them extra votes in a direct election (although of course that would just make the affront to democracy more obvious).

Opposition to direct election comes from those who reflexively hate change, or hate democracy, or are unable to see past the partisan advantage that the present system, on this occasion, has conferred on their side. But the biggest problem with the electoral college is its sheer capriciousness: today’s winner could be tomorrow’s loser, with no rhyme or reason other than blind chance.

It’s really not a good look for democracy.

4 thoughts on “Two million and still counting

  1. As you alluded to, the Republican attitude to the national popular vote is of a piece with their attitude to democracy generally. Other examples include rampant gerrymandering, voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement. Even things like early voting, precinct locations and voting equipment are subject to partisan considerations. Most amazingly, there is even a genuine possibility that the North Carolina legislature could reverse the clear cut outcome of the gubernatorial election.

    The cumbersomely named National Popular Vote Interstate Compact may offer the best path to reform. But its limited success is instructive in that only staunchly Democratic have got on board. Election reform will never happen unless Republicans have a stake in it.

    Alas, I suspect the structural advantage for Republicans in the electoral college is here to stay. Unless the Democrats can make further gains in Texas, which intriguingly now sits between Ohio and Iowa on the electoral pendulum. Now that would really flip things on its head.


    1. Thanks David. You’re absolutely right about the Republican Party’s hostility to democracy. But the thing is, those other measures (gerrymandering, ID laws, etc) at least make sense in partisan terms; we know they’ll systematically favor Republicans. The electoral college isn’t like that: there’s very little reason to think it benefits one side more than the other. Mitt Romney was only 2% off beating Obama in the popular vote, but on a uniform swing basis he was 2.7% off beating him in the electoral college. It comes down to who is wasting more votes by racking up big majorities in safe states, and that can change over time – sometimes due to identifiable social factors, but more often from sheer chance.
      And yes, I think Texas is a big prospect for the Democrats next time.


      1. The problem is that electoral college/popular vote disparity wasn’t some random artefact, it was built in. FiveThirtyEight’s model calculated a 10.5% chance of Clinton winning the popular vote whilst losing the electoral college, as against a 0.5% chance of the reverse happening.

        Whilst the Democrats might have had a small advantage according to the 2012 pendulum, they’ve had some very bad trade offs in the meantime. They’ve gained votes in the Sun Belt for no electoral return, whilst losing votes in the Great Lakes region with disastrous consequences.

        Perhaps that trade off can be just as easily reversed, but I’m not so optimistic. I don’t think the balance will be restored until the Democrats start turning these light red states – Arizona, Texas, Georgia – into genuine contests.


      2. That’s all very true – I guess we’re just using “random” in different ways. My point is that there’s nothing in the nature of the electoral college that makes that more likely than the reverse; it just happens in the current state of things that the Republicans have narrow majorities in some big mid-western states. But at the rate things are going, Georgia and Texas will be very competitive in 2020, which (as you say) could make things look quite different.


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