As members of the Electoral College prepare to choose Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, some Republican electors say they are defending rural and small-town America against big-state liberalism and its support for national popular vote leader Hillary Clinton.
But the picture is more complicated.
“Our Founding Fathers established the Electoral College because those larger states, those larger areas, don’t necessarily need to be the ones that rule,” said Mary Sue McClurkin, a Republican elector from Alabama.
In Trump’s hometown of New York City, which Clinton won easily, Democratic elector Stuart Appelbaum countered that “we’re electing the president of the entire country,” so “the will of the entire country should be reflected in the results.”
It’s an expected argument given the unusual circumstances of the 2016 election. Clinton won some 2.6 million more votes than Trump in the nationwide tally. But Trump is line to get 306 of the 538 electoral votes under the state-by-state distribution of electors used to choose presidents since 1789.
Trump won rural areas, small towns and many small cities, including in states Clinton carried. Clinton won in the largest urban areas, including in Trump states.
Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, a GOP elector, said Democrats’ strength on the coasts is enough to justify the Electoral College. “A presidential election decided each time by either California or New York,” he said, would leave voters in Alaska and many other places “with no voice” in presidential politics.
It’s worth noting that Trump didn’t just win small states and Clinton didn’t just take large ones.
Trump and Clinton split the six most populous states, each winning three, but Trump won seven of the top 10. Of the 10 smallest states plus the District of Columbia, Trump edged Clinton 6-5. Trump actually ran up his national advantage in midsize states.
But the dynamics highlight the delicate balance in a political structure that defines itself simultaneously as a democracy and a republic.
When the U.S. was founded, some wanted direct election of the president. Others wanted state legislatures or Congress to choose the executive. The Electoral College was the end result: Each state got a slate of electors numbering the same as its delegation in Congress. Electors vote, with rare exception, for whichever candidate won the most votes in their state — effectively meaning the presidential election is 51 separate popular votes.
“It’s such an interesting compromise that gave us the Electoral College, unique to our American system,” said elections law expert Will Sellers from Alabama, who will serve as a Republican elector for the fourth time.
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The system gives smaller states an advantage: The number of electors is based on each state’s number of U.S. representatives plus two, for each member of the U.S. Senate — itself a compromise favoring small states.
So California’s 55 electoral votes reflect 53 House members and two senators. For seven states, including Wyoming, Delaware and the Dakotas, those extra two electoral votes bring their total to the minimum of three.
Put another way, Alaska’s three electors will cast 0.56% of the 538 electoral votes despite casting just 0.23% of the national popular vote. But the advantage doesn’t just favor Republicans. Democratic Nevada makes up 1.12% of the Electoral College but cast less than 1 of a 100 national ballots.
The Electoral College-popular vote split, along with Trump’s larger-than-life personality and lack of elective experience, has fueled a vocal, but almost certainly futile, movement to deny him the presidency by pressuring electors to vote against him when they convene Monday in the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The Associated Press tried to reach all 538 electors and was able to interview more than 330 of them. Many reported getting tens of thousands of emails, calls and letters asking them to vote against Trump.
But the canvass found overwhelming support for the system, and the nominee, among Republican electors. The AP found only one pledged to Trump who will refuse to vote for him.
“I feel like the Electoral College gives a very fair perspective, so that those who are in the rural areas are able to have an equal voice with those who are in the urban areas,” said Oklahoma elector Lauree Elizabeth Marshall.
If anything, when Republican electors talk about large states, they actually mean New York and California. Clinton’s lead in California, the most populous state, is more than her national lead. She won New York by about 1.7 million votes.
McClurkin, the Alabama elector, says many of the letters and emails she’s received have come from those two states. “I’ve not gotten any from a Southern state,” she said.
But Democratic elector Eric Herde from Washington state argued that the country should scrap electoral votes in favor of the national ballot count. All Electoral College defenses, whether citing population or the genius of the founders, amount to “states mattering more than people,” Herde said. “The argument that the person who got the most votes should win is still the better argument.”