There have been five United States presidential elections where the “elected” President did not win the popular vote but was chosen by our electoral college system.
In my lifetime, this has occurred twice: the 2000 election of George W Bush and the recent 2016 election. The former resulted in an expensive and ill-advised war that cost trillions of dollars, destabilized a significant part of the world and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on both sides. The 2016 election has resulted in our current contentious environment.
The other instances have not been much better. The very first presidential election was “awarded” to John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives, despite only winning 32% of the popular vote. (Andrew Jackson won 42% of the vote, but not enough for a majority and he lacked the connections of John Quincy Adams.)
The 1876 election had disastrous consequences. Although the Democrat candidate, Tilden, won 52% of the vote, there were 4 states where the winner was contested. Congress worked out a compromise that awarded the election to the Republican, Hayes, under the condition that he not run for re-election and remove the federal troops from the South. The removal of these troops resulted in African-American voter suppression and the commencement of systematic repression of the Southern black population.
In 1988 the electoral college prevented Grover Cleveland from being reelected to a second term. Aided by Tammany Hall in NYC, Harrison was able to win the electoral college despite having 92,000 votes fewer than Cleveland.
The election of 2000 was decided by a Supreme Court which ruled that while the constitution guarantees us the right to vote, it does not guarantee the right to have our vote counted. In 2016, despite winning by 3 million votes, Clinton did not win the electoral college.
Unfortunately, this quirk in our election process results in, at best, a contentious term of office.
But more importantly, there are two statistical axioms that show that the electoral college system flies against scientific knowledge. The first statistical property is the law of large numbers. This law means that the larger the number of (in this case) votes, the more accurate the data. By not allowing all Americans’ votes to be counted, it becomes a poor assessment of the “will of the people.”
But even more important is the statistical phenomenon known as the “wisdom of the crowd.” Sir Francis Galton, one of the early pioneers of statistics, identified this phenomenon after gathering estimates of an ox’s weight at a county fair. While the guesses varied widely and few were accurate, he found that the average of all guesses was within 1% of the actual weight. The larger the sample, the more likely that the average answer is correct. He called this the “wisdom of the crowd.” We have found that this phenomenon is pretty rigorous in large samples. For example, if you have a bowl of marbles and ask a large number of people to estimate how many marbles are in the bowl, the average estimate will be within 1-2% of the actual number.
So let’s apply these statistical principles to our popular election. In the electoral college system, we reduce the number of actual votes from 137.5 million (in 2016) to 538 (called restriction in range). With these 538 votes, we have effectively eliminated the votes for the losing candidate in that state (and in some cases electors are allowed to vote their conscience). This small sample (538) ignores the importance of the law of large numbers and eliminates “the wisdom of the crowd” by significantly reducing the sample size.
Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” individually may be true, but our statistical laws demonstrate that he is wrong when it is applied to the entire population. If we leave the election up to an unbiased crowd, its wisdom will prevail.
Angela Rieck was born and raised on a farm in Caroline County. After receiving her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland, she worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Throughout her career, she held management jobs at AT&T, HP and Medco, finally retiring as a corporate executive for a large financial services company. Angela is also a wife, mother and an active volunteer serving on the Morris County School Board for 13 years and fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs. After the death of her husband, Dr. Rieck returned to the Eastern Shore to be with her siblings. With a daughter living and working in New York City, she and her dogs now split their time between Talbot County and Key West, FL.