1 in 14 chance that the Electoral College winner will lose the National Popular Vote

by Laura Kirshner // Published September 8, 2008
www.Fivethirtyeight.com is reporting a 7.4% chance that the winner of the 2008 presidential election will lose the popular vote. History offers us similar odds: out of the 55 presidential elections that have taken place, 4 of them (7.3%) resulted in an electoral vote winner who lost the national popular vote. These were the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

According to the site's scenario analysis, the probability that 2008 will be yet another backwards election to add to the pile is higher than the probability that McCain will win every state that President Bush won. This scenario could play out in favor of either candidate. There is a 4.2% chance that Obama will get the raw end of the deal, winning the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, and there is a 3.2% chance that McCain will be the one wondering why the system had failed him.

The chance of this happening may seem negligible to many spectators, but it seems awfully high to me. There should be, at the very most, a .00000000000001% chance that the national popular vote winner loses the general election. Even that is a bit generous. The point is, there is no logical reason why the national popular vote winner should not win the presidency.

We need to keep in mind that we are not electing the 'President of State X' but rather, the President of the United States. It should not make a difference how each individual state voted; the only thing that we should take into consideration is how the nation as a whole voted. If I voted for candidate A, and my state's electoral votes went to candidate B, then my vote has been rendered meaningless. It's an even worse scenario if my state is a safe state, therefore I know where my state's electoral votes are going well in advance of election day. That being the case, what incentive is there for me to bother voting? The net result is low voter turnout and voter apathy. People in safe states who opt not to vote are expressing a rational decision not to waste their time and energy in what is essentially a fixed election.

The winner-take-all electoral college system must go. I won't even venture to say that it is 'outdated' and 'archaic'. The truth is, it was never 'dated' or 'cutting edge'. Almost as soon as the Founders broke from the Constitutional Convention, they realized that the system they had hurriedly devised at the end of that humid summer in 1787 was insufficient. They tweaked the arrangement many times over the next several decades, and these manipulations ceased only after most of the Founders had died. The Founders clearly intended for us to keep changing the system so that it suits our needs and capabilities; they had the foresight to understand that technology in their day was limited and that bigger and better means of communication would likely arise in due time. That's why they treated elections as experiments to see if things worked out as they'd expected. When things didn't work out, they tweaked the system.

So why is it that after 4 elections that did not work, and perhaps with another one on the way, we have yet to 'tweak' the system ourselves? Why are we so intent on preserving a system that has failed us 1 in 14 times? Suppose you are suffering from some chronic ailment, and your doctor offers you a remedy, but then warns that 1 in 14 times this medicine causes the patient to become paralyzed from the neck down (and this reaction tends to last for four to eight years), would you be content with those odds? Surely you would hope that further research and adjustments to the medicine would drastically reduce the odds of such a reaction. Or would you accept those odds and figure that whoever developed the medicine must have done the best that they could, leaving no room for improvement?