Why Isn’t There More Alarm About the Gerrymandering of US Presidencies?
Updated: May 26
This article was originally published by the London School of Economics' School of Public Policy Blog, November 29, 2019.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
There is an increasing organic gerrymandering of the United States’ presidential elections. London School of Economics Master of Public Administration alumnus, Dennis Shen, has described this as alarming, especially ahead of critical 2020 American elections.
The author examines the impact of demographic trends that have increasingly bent presidential elections in favor of one political party. He proposes urgent reform to the electoral system, and challenges young Americans to carefully consider where their political voices and preferences will be best heard and represented depending on where they choose to reside or vote from.
The result of the 2016 United States (US) presidential election to many was shocking. Not only in that American business magnate, Donald Trump, defied the odds, but also that losing candidate, former First Lady and Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, received 2.87 million more popular votes than Trump did. That final outcome was a result of the Electoral College—a body of electors and process constituted by the Constitution to elect US presidents.
Importantly—neither the 2000 and 2016 elections are coincidences, but rather should be viewed as symptoms of ongoing demographic polarization in the US, and its influence on a growing gerrymandering of US state boundaries.
Gerrymandered state boundaries?
There are growing questions surrounding the impartiality of the US Electoral College system, particularly amidst de facto “organic” gerrymandering.
For instance, the 2016 presidential election was not the first time in the last 20 years that the presidency went to a particular political party when that party had lost the popular vote. A similar albeit much less extreme outcome was seen in the 2000 election won by President George W. Bush, in which the Democrat candidate, Al Gore, secured the popular vote victory by more than 500,000 ballots but lost the election. Importantly—neither the 2000 and 2016 elections are coincidences, but rather should be viewed as symptoms of ongoing demographic polarization in the US, and its influence on a growing gerrymandering of US state boundaries.
Source: Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/05/15/americas-most-gerrymandered-congressional-districts/
Gerrymandering arises when one political party gains an advantage over another on the basis of how district boundaries are drawn. For example, voters for a rival political group can be concentrated into one or a few political district(s), resulting in this rival party losing the majority of districts and thus losing the overall election even when it has won the majority of the total popular vote.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won California by nearly 4.3 million votes! She won New York by over 1.7 million votes and Massachusetts by another 900,000 votes. The problem, however, is that these margins of victory are meaningless as every vote after a candidate has achieved breakeven+1 in the popular vote of the state (earning the candidate all the state’s Electoral College votes) was wasted. Voter waste is not unique to Democrat states. It is important to highlight that there were also considerable victory margins in Republican states in 2016. However, the point is that the extent of voter waste for Democrats was nonetheless much greater.
This issue of voter waste is worsening for Democrats, due to a concentration of its voters on the East and West coasts of the US – in part due to the mobility young, Democrat-leaning Americans have in relocating.
A study from Haven Life found that Millennials in the US are moving west. Portland, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco accounted for the top four destinations for persons born between 1981 and 1992 to relocate to from 2012 to 2017. The issue is, naturally, that these four cities, which are fashionable amongst younger generations, are located in states that are already heavily “blue” inclined. Therefore, mobile Democrats, acting on geographical residential preferences, are also contributing to the worsening of gerrymandering. They are, effectively, disenfranchising themselves by relocating out of middle America.
Therefore, mobile Democrats, acting on geographical residential preferences, are also contributing to the worsening of gerrymandering. They are, effectively, disenfranchising themselves by relocating out of middle America.
Should current trends continue, it would be more likely in the 2020 presidential elections (if not the 2024 elections) to see another result that resembles that from 2000 or 2016, in which the Democrat candidate wins the popular vote but loses the presidency, than the same in reverse, in which the Republican candidate wins the popular election but loses the Electoral College and the presidency. A study by researchers at the University of Texas concluded that in elections decided via such “inversion”, in which one party wins the popular vote but loses the election, Republicans should be expected to win 65% of such contests. The researchers found that even a three-point margin of victory for the Democrats in the popular vote (for context, Secretary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by two percentage points) is now associated with a 16% probability of the Democrat candidate losing the election.
Research has suggested that Democrats could win the popular vote in 2020 by upwards of 5 million votes now (compared with, for instance, the 2.87 million popular vote margin for Secretary Clinton in 2016) and could still hypothetically lose the presidency. While this latter case is extreme and perhaps unlikely, the fact that it is not altogether impossible underscores the rising scale of the issue even since 2016.
Remove or reform the Electoral College?
The Electoral College’s body of electors were entrusted at the nation’s founding with the right to break from their constituency’s popular will if certain basic principles in the elected candidate were not observed. As such, the Electoral College’s duty has been to act as a technocratic safeguard against the whims of an electorate – to impede elections from devolving into “low intrigue” popularity contests that could bring an unqualified US President. The Electoral College has the right to overrule the popular outcome in the state if certain conditions are not met in the popularly elected candidate. It can be argued, however, that the Electoral College has not served this function effectively in a long time.
As such, if the execution of the Electoral College’s duty has been watered down by ever greater democratization – with electors bound now by state laws or party pledges to vote in line with the state’s popular vote outcome – and instead the Electoral College system’s most tangible impact now is to skew election outcomes due to the College’s mathematics, why not reform if not remove it?
As such, if the execution of the Electoral College’s duty has been watered down by ever greater democratization – with electors bound now by state laws or party pledges to vote in line with the state’s popular vote outcome – and instead the Electoral College system’s most tangible impact now is to skew election outcomes due to the College’s mathematics, why not reform if not remove it? An amendment to the Constitution could change the system to a direct nationwide popular vote. Alternatively, awarding all states’ Electoral College votes proportionally between parties rather than giving them exclusively to the state winner could reduce mathematical bias.
Reform of the Electoral College requires approval by two-thirds in both houses of Congress and three-quarters of US states. This is unlikely given the Republican Party’s stake in the system remaining unchanged. Republicans could argue correctly that state boundaries have not changed, and that the apparent gerrymandering of the Electoral College has been as a result of natural alterations in voter geography.
Constitutional reform of the Electoral College should not be depended upon as such. If the Republican Party stonewalls constitutional change, disenfranchised Democrat-voting Americans may need to consider more carefully in which state and/or district they choose to live so as not to diminish their own political voices in the process.
Current conditions in which presidential election results are unstable to even small changes in state boundaries and asymmetrically greater political voice is granted to voters in so-called battleground states should not be normalized. Gerrymandering is an issue not only in presidential elections, but also in other US elections (e.g. Senate and House of Representatives contests). Raising the alarm about this undemocratic dilemma is a step towards change, lest we are shocked by results like that during the 2016 US presidential election again in the future.