USA Today recently ran a commentary with the provocative headline: “Rural Americans would be serfs if we abolished the Electoral College.”
Is that so? Being located in a generally rural part of Virginia, we’re sensitive to all things rural, so the question intrigued us. The author, conservative writer Trent England, praises our current system for electing presidents because “the Electoral College makes it impossible for one population-dense region of the country to control the presidency. A pure popular vote system, he says, would effectively disenfranchise voters in small-town and rural America. The Electoral College, he writes, “requires geographic balance and helps protect Americans who might otherwise have their voices ignored.” Yes, Hillary Clinton got the most votes in 2016 but Donald Trump’s votes were more geographically diverse, which is why he now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and she doesn’t.
Before we get to the particulars of how a popular vote system would change American politics, we must pose a philosophical question: How important is it to have a federal system? Every other office in the country is chosen by popular vote, except the most important one — the presidency. That’s because we have a federal system in which the election of the president is built around states, not individual voters. It’s politically convenient to frame the argument based on which outcome one preferred in 2016, but this is really a philosophical question, not just a partisan one. A popular vote system would change one of the fundamental bedrocks of the U.S. Constitution. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe it’s not; just be aware of what you’re doing.
So, onto the main question: Would electing American presidents by popular votes render rural voters electorally insignificant? It’s easy to see why the answer might be yes: Most voters don’t live in rural areas, therefore the candidates would only focus on the most populous states and even there on the most populous cities.
The actual answer is probably a lot more complicated and not a clear “yes” or “no.” It’s certainly true that the Electoral College forces candidates to pay attention to some small states — the ones that are “in play.” In 2016, Trump visited New Hampshire nine times and Iowa six times; Clinton visited New Hampshire four times and Iowa three times. They wouldn’t have done so in a popular vote system. Other small states, though, got zero attention from either candidate because they simply weren’t swing states. Then again, some big states got ignored, too. Therefore, we can’t say that the Electoral College forces candidates to pay attention to small states. It forces candidates to pay attention to swing states. Big states that aren’t swing states don’t get attention, either. Trump had no reason to go to California and Clinton had no reason to go to Texas. We have 50 states, but as Americans become more polarized in their politics in this particular era of our 243-year history, most have become very predictable. Only about a dozen will really matter in 2020. Is that really how we should elect a president? The only thing we can really say about abolishing the Electoral College is that it would certainly change the dynamics of a presidential campaign — we’re just not entirely sure how.
In some ways, it would force candidates to pay more attention to big states. A Republican candidate would want to spend time in places like California and New York — not to carry those states, because carrying them wouldn’t matter. Instead, the goal would be to maximize turnout among a very sizeable minority of Republican voters there. Even in losing California, Trump still polled 4,483,810 votes there —more than he got in all but two other states. (He got more votes in Texas and Florida, both of which he won.) It’s entirely possible that there were more Trump votes to be found in California but those voters didn’t turn out — and why should they, because he was never going to carry California anyway. Likewise, a Democrat would spend more time in Texas looking for votes (let’s set aside the fact that Texas might someday flip). In terms of popular vote, Texas was Clinton’s fourth-best state. Maybe there were more Clinton votes available there, but she had no incentive to find them because no one realistically thought she had a chance to carry the state. That suggests a popular vote system would elevate large states over small states and it would — but, paradoxically, it would also elevate small states, as well. How can that be?
Right now, there’s no reason for either party’s candidates to visit large swaths of the Rockies, the Midwest and South, because those heavily rural states are so predictably Republican. In a popular vote system, a Republican candidate would want to maximize GOP turnout there to offset votes in Democratic metropolises elsewhere. And a Democrat might want to visit certain locations there to mine more Democratic votes. We’d certainly see a Democrat in the Deep South trying to maximize African-American turnout in states that now are solidly Republican, but we’d likely not see a Democrat in Fargo, North Dakota. Instead of the candidates focusing on two small, rural states — as they did with Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016 — we’d see candidates operating more strategically, some might say surgically — across a larger swath of small states.
Look, for instance, at how statewide elections in Virginia work. Most of the time the candidates are in the urban crescent, not rural Virginia. But Republicans do spend a fair amount of time trying to pump up the vote in rural Virginia, because that’s where their base is. Democrats generally ignore anything outside the urban crescent — except for a few locations were they think they can mine Democratic votes (such as Roanoke). It’s probably not true then to say that a popular vote system would turn rural voters into “serfs.” Republican candidates would spend more time in New York, but they might spend some of it in rural upstate New York that votes strongly (and for now, ineffectually) Republican. Democrats would spend more time in the rural Rio Grande Valley of Texas with its big Hispanic vote, or the “black belt” counties of the Deep South. Then again, they’d both have reason to spend more time in Los Angeles — a place now that neither party’s candidate really has a reason to visit.
That’s why the only thing we can really say for certain is that a popular vote system would create a very different type of presidential campaign than the ones we have now. Democrats might like that now, but Republicans might like that someday if Texas ever turns blue.