No Electoral College = No President-Elect Yet?

I ran across an interesting post on the Washington Times website the other day.  The post was understated, basically an afterthought to this year’s election.  The writer was simply remarking upon updated popular vote totals. Guess what? Mitt Romney finally passed John McCain’s high water mark from 2008.  One less thing to bash the Romney campaign about.

It was meant to be a simple post, nothing controversial.  Fun information for all the political junkies out there.  Yet, for those who care to read deeper, it highlights one fundamental flaw in the current effort against the Electoral College.

This effort, the so-called National Popular Vote plan, has been making unfortunate progress in state legislatures. If enacted, NPV would award states’ electors to the winner of the national popular vote. Yet, as the Washington Times writer unknowingly highlighted, this national tally can take weeks—even months and years—to finalize. Indeed, there is never really a certain, absolutely final result.

Don’t believe me?  Trying Googling the 1960 presidential election. Academics still argue about the “real” popular vote tally that year.  Nor is 1960 an aberration.  The totals for other years are subject to revision, too.

I discovered this latter point as I was wrapping up the second edition of my book earlier this year. I’d left Appendix B—a list of election results—until the very end of the drafting process, thinking that I could just quickly reconfirm what I printed the first time.  I was wrong.  It turns out that many, many popular vote totals, as reported by Congressional Quarterly, have changed since 2004.

The 2004 edition of my book reports that Abraham Lincoln obtained 2,218,388 votes during his 1864 election. Apparently that was inaccurate. The new number, as reported in the 2012 edition of my book, is 2,220,846. Yes, you read that right.  Popular vote totals from the 1800s are still being revised, nearly 150 years later! A few other changed election tallies appear below.  Keep in mind that this is simply a sample of what I found.  There were also many other years with revised totals.

Candidate

Party

Popular
Vote Total
(as of 2004)

Popular
Vote Total
(as of 2012)

Votes
Added    (Lost)

1864

Abraham Lincoln

R

2,218,388

2,220,846

2,458

George B. McClellan

D

1,812,807

1,809,445

(3,362)

1896

William McKinley

R

7,108,480

7,105,144

(3,336)

William J. Bryan

D / PO

6,511,495

6,370,897

(140,598)

1940

Franklin D. Roosevelt

D

27,313,041

27,343,218

30,177

Wendell Willkie

R

22,348,480

22,334,940

(13,540)

1948

Harry S. Truman

D

24,179,345

24,105,810

(73,535)

Thomas E. Dewey

R

21,991,291

21,970,064

(21,227)

J. Strom Thurmond

SRD

1,176,125

1,169,114

(7,011)

This election year, we had a relatively uneventful Election Day. Barack Obama is the undisputed winner. His slim popular vote lead was magnified by the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in most states, and disputes about the popular vote tally are essentially non-existent. No one expects to affect the final outcome of the election, even if they can prove that some votes were stolen in Chicago or Philadelphia.  Obama won by too large an electoral margin—Romney would have to reverse the results in at least three large swing states.  It’s too high a bar.

Despite this lack of controversy, the national popular vote tally is still a work in progress nearly three weeks after Election Day. What happens with controversy?

If the national popular vote tally is paramount, then we will be unlikely to know who won the election on Election Day. On election night, Obama had a roughly 2.8 million vote advantage over Mitt Romney. In a field of  roughly 127 million voters, with millions of ballots still to be counted, that is much too close to call. With a close race and millions of votes yet to be counted, the potential of stolen votes in Chicago and Philadelphia could easily come into play—as would similar allegations in Ohio or Florida. Even stolen votes in very safe states start to matter, because any vote stolen in any precinct in the country can affect a national individual vote total.  On November 7, we would not have seen headlines declaring Obama the winner of the election.  We might have seen headlines about lawsuits and planned recounts.

One of the great benefits of the Electoral College is the stability and certainty that it provides the country. We don’t need to agree on the precise individual count nationwide. We can answer the easier question of who won which states. Thus, we generally know who the President-elect* will be within hours of the polls closing, even though the final popular vote tallies will take many more weeks to finalize. A direct election system, as proposed by NPV, cannot grant this kind of certainty.

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* Technically, of course, we do not have a President-elect until Congress counts the electoral votes on January 6, but those logistics are a topic for another day.  The important point for now is that we all know the electoral outcome. The meetings of the electors and the counting of votes in Congress have become largely a formality.