You’ve heard it a million times since Nov. 8: It’s unfair that Hillary Clinton lost the election, because she beat Donald Trump in the popular count by 3 million votes. She would be president, the argument goes, if it weren’t for an outdated, outmoded electoral college system that just thwarted the will of the majority 66 million voters who backed her.
But none of that is true. In fact, the electoral college worked exactly as it was intended. The Founders set up the system specifically to prevent a few population centers from ruling the entire country, similar to the way they set up the House and Senate so that populous states wouldn’t have outsized power over less-populated states.
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One set of numbers in particular really drives this point home. Trump won the vote in 2,626 counties nationwide, while Clinton won the vote in just 487 counties. That’s a stunningly low number, even for a Democrat. When former President Barack Obama won 689 counties nationwide in 2009, he set a record for the lowest number of counties won by a winning presidential candidate.
Half of Clinton’s popular vote lead over Trump came from 1.5 million voters in the five counties that make up New York City.
Indeed, many of the counties Clinton won are in affluent urban areas on the West and East coasts, which is how she can come out on top in the popular vote with so few counties on her side. Trump’s counties, on the other hand, are in large part found in less-populated and often relatively poor, rural areas comprising the rest of the country. In terms of land-area, Trump won the vast majority of the country, as The New York Times illustrates in two amazing maps that break up the country by the vote.
Trump managed to flip more than 200 counties that voted for Obama in 2012, by the way, Clinton flipped just 30 counties that went Republican in 2012. The difference highlights how winning a U.S. presidential election is more about plurality votes than it is about net votes.
If Democrats got their wish and the election were decided by the popular vote, the result would be that people in very small and relatively affluent regions of the country would effectively rule over the rest of the country. Presidential candidates wouldn’t need to make a single campaign stop outside of the urban hubs on the coast in order to win elections. The voices of citizens in the rest of the country, who have different concerns and incomes and perspectives, could be downplayed, ignored and effectively silenced.
This is exactly the kind of scenario the Founders were working to avoid when they designed the electoral college. The system forces candidates to more widely consider the interests of all Americans, rather than only zero in on the interests of a few populations scattered on the coast.