Every presidential election year brings new focus on the idea of abolishing the Electoral College, especially 2000 and 2016 when the popular vote winner lost the race. If only the truly democratic popular vote of the country had been followed, the idea goes, our candidate would have won!
Applied retroactively, this critique is a mistake, ignoring how the rules make the game. If the participants were operating under different rules, their strategies would have been different. Republicans would campaign more in California, and Democrats would put greater effort into Texas, for example, while both would spend less time in Florida. Moving from 48% to 50%+1 in Florida would be less valuable than taking 48% and campaigning elsewhere.
The general assumption seems to be that a popular vote rule would favor the Democratic Party, but I don’t think that’s a guarantee. It’s based on two elections run under different rules. It assumes strategy doesn’t change when rules change—and not only for candidates. The popular vote rule would also change the calculus for voters, especially for hidden minority party members whose preferred candidate has so little chance of winning that they don’t bother to vote. Allow me to take the long way to the point. As reliably Republican as Utah is, the Democratic presidential candidate still tends to get about a quarter of the popular vote there in recent years. In two solidly Democratic states with larger, more culturally and ethnically diverse populations, California and New York, the Republican presidential candidate gets a few points over a third of the popular vote. That so many of them cast votes for candidates who are certain to lose the state hints at more voters with the same preferences but less motivation.
Not only that, but because state legislatures control Congressional district boundaries, down-ticket races tend to be more lopsided, and thus even more discouraging to minority party voters. The Cook Partisan Voting Index has New York’s 15th District, which covers Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo, as the most partisan. The 15th District’s results were more assured ahead of time than anywhere, yet 4.9% of the voters there in 2016 still took the time to pull the lever for the other presidential candidate. I’m not suggesting there are a great many low-flying Republican voters there, but under the direct popular vote such as exist would have more incentive to vote.
The obvious counterpoint is the voters who would vote but realize their preferred candidates are going to win and don’t spend time running up the score. Under a direct popular vote, the incentive changes for them, too. What we don’t know is which of these groups, the discouraged local minority party voters or the assured local majority party voters, is larger. Keep in mind many people don’t vote now and still won’t vote if the rule changes. So if the popular vote rule were implemented, are we sure about who would gain more votes?
In a country as large and heterogenous as the United States, there are good reasons to think the Electoral College helps reduce social conflict. It’s also embedded in the Constitution, so removing it requires a lot of political capital, a heavy strategic concern that requires other agenda items to give way.
Perhaps it would be a more fair, democratic system. It would also be fairly unique. To use an example, the German political system is generally regarded as democratic enough, and as producing tolerably good results, and it is not even close to the simple popular vote rule. The German chancellor is elected by the Bundestag, roughly the equivalent of the US House of Representatives. Direct election of a head of government by pure popular vote is less common than you’d think. Political parties, government bodies, and other institutions generally mediate between votes and outcomes, and the popular vote rule would have to overcome their resistance as well.
None of this is to say it’s not worth doing. That’s a subjective judgment I can’t make for you. But I see the impetus for the direct popular vote as either trying to relitigate past elections, or as a better way to achieve the proponent’s goals. The latter might be a mistake. The former certainly is.