How the Electoral College Rigged the Election for Donald Trump

America's electoral system gives smaller, more conservative states more weight – and that benefited Trump

Credit: Mark Makela/Getty

I don't agree with Donald Trump on much. We both like New York City. We both believe in the importance of oxygen for sustaining living beings. Beyond that, and especially in the political realm, we don't often see eye-to-eye.

However, it has become painfully clear that one of the central claims of the Trump campaign is undoubtedly true: The election was indeed rigged. But it wasn't rigged in the direction Trump claimed – rather, it was rigged in Trump's and his party's favor. This happened in a number of ways – felon disenfranchisement, voter suppression and Puerto Rico having no say whatsoever, for instance – but one huge one that was under-appreciated by many Americans before this week is the Electoral College system.

The facts are indisputable: Last Tuesday, there was an election for president. One candidate received more votes than the other. And that candidate lost.

Right now, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by over a million votes. As all the absentee ballots from California, Washington and New York are counted, experts expect that number to climb to over two million, with a margin of victory around 1.5 percent. As has been noted in The New York Times, that would be a greater margin of victory in the popular vote than the ones with which John F. Kennedy won in 1960 and Richard Nixon won in 1968.

Of course, Trump won the election because he won the most electoral votes. The U.S. Constitution allots each state a number of electoral votes based on the combined number of members of Congress each state has. Therefore, Wyoming, with one representative in the House and two senators, has three electoral votes, while California, with 53 representatives and two senators, has 55 electoral votes. In all but Nebraska and Maine, all electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the state's popular vote. Thus, a candidate who wins by one vote in a state gets the same number of that state's electoral votes – all of them – as a candidate who wins by millions of votes.

So the election was rigged in the sense that the Founding Fathers created a system that, at this point in history, tilts the playing field in favor of candidates who appeal to low-population states and a small set of contested "swing" states, rather than those who appeal to big urban centers in population-rich states that are not contested.

First, the swing states: By giving all the electors in a swing state to the candidate who wins that state, even if only by a small number of votes, the system heavily favors the candidate who appeals to those few states. All the other states, where the candidates may win by much larger margins, become less relevant.

In this election, Clinton won some of the most populous states in the nation – New York and California – by substantial margins. Texas was the largest state Trump won, but he won that by a much smaller margin. Of course, Trump won the important swing states, but also by very narrow margins. Because of the winner-take-all system, Trump's narrow advantage in those few swing states mattered much more than Clinton's massive advantage in the unconstested states.

Second, basic math illustrates the point that all low-population states, not just swing states, are favored in this system. According to the last census (in 2010), Wyoming, the nation's lowest population state, has just over 560,000 people. Those people get three electoral votes, or one per 186,000 people. California, our most populous state, has more than 37 million people. Those Californians have 55 electoral votes, or one per 670,000 people. Comparatively, people in Wyoming have nearly four times the power in the Electoral College as people in California. Put another way, if California had the same proportion of electoral votes per person as Wyoming, it would have about 200 electoral votes.

If you look at a map generated by Slate showing this difference, the states with the greatest power in the Electoral College – those whose citizens' votes count the most – are mostly low-population, conservative states. Meanwhile, the states with the least power in the Electoral College are more of a mixed bag of conservative, swing and liberal states. Importantly, among the five least powerful (most populous) states are three that deliver overwhelming Democratic majorities every four years: California, New York and Illinois.

What this means is that America's electoral system is rigged to give these smaller, more conservative states more weight. In fact, that's one of the reasons the Constitution's framers created the system in the first place: to give those smaller states a say in the process (and to help slave states). To illustrate this, think about what a pure popular vote system would do to the election. The small states would be largely ignored, and the biggest states with the most populous cities would get the most attention.

The Framers thus chose a system that would give power to the small states over the big states, a system that now favors conservative Republicans over more liberal Democrats. It's no coincidence that the two presidential candidates in this century who have won the popular but lost the election were Democrats (the other being Al Gore, in 2000).

We have to call this system what it is: rigged.

Interestingly, Trump himself recognized the unfairness of the Electoral College in a series of tweets in 2012. He called the system "a disaster for a democracy," "a total sham and a travesty," and a "laughing stock." Of course, he tweeted this commentary when he mistakenly believed that Barack Obama had lost the popular vote against Mitt Romney. Trump also said, before learning Obama had in fact won both the popular and electoral votes, that there should be a "revolution in this country," that we should "fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice" and that we "can't let this happen" and "should march on Washington."

Funny how now Trump is saying something completely different. Since he won the election but lost the popular vote, he's tweeted about the "genius" of the Electoral College, saying "it brings all states, including smaller ones, into play." He also (rightly) pointed out that he would have campaigned differently if there were a pure popular vote. There's no reason to believe that the large liberal states would have turned out for Trump if only he had campaigned there. But there is every reason to believe Clinton's popular-vote margin would have been even greater had everyone in California and New York had an incentive to vote.

The root problem here is the Constitution's guarantee that every state has two senators, regardless of size. If Senate representation were proportional, so much about this country would be different. However, it isn't, and we have not only the lopsided Electoral College, but outsized influence in Congress for small, rural states – which, of course, tend to vote Republican.

So Donald Trump was right about the system being rigged. There are and always have been attempts to reform this system – un-rig it if you will – but those are likely to go nowhere in the near (nor possibly distant) future. Instead, we have to live with the reality that, with Trump winning the election while losing the popular vote, there’s no way to argue the system is anything but rigged in his favor.