“Won the Popular Vote”?

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, over 3 million people have signed an online petition asking the Electors of the Electoral College to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton instead of President-elect Donald Trump, and one of their arguments to support this request/demand is that she “won the popular vote”.

Excuse me?

Secretary Clinton did NOT win the popular vote. She simply has a plurality of the popular vote. And that is more than an academic distinction.

Let’s go with a little thought experiment here. Frank, Mary and John are running for club president, and the winner is selected by a vote of the 200 club members. Mary gets 92 votes, Frank gets 87 votes, and John gets 21 votes. Who won this “popular vote”?

Answer – we don’t have enough information to know (yes, it was a trick question). You cannot say who won a vote unless you know what the rules of the vote are.

Exhibit A. In this year’s U.S. Senate race in Alaska, Republican Lisa Murkowski got 44.3% of the vote to Libertarian Joe Miller’s 29.5%; the other candidates split the remaining 26.2%. Murkowski won the vote despite not having a majority; by Alaska’s election rules, her plurality was sufficient.

Exhibit B. In the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, Republican John Kennedy led the 24 candidates with 25.0% of the vote, with Democrat Foster Campbell getting 17.9% and everyone else trailing behind them. By Louisiana’s election rules, Kennedy did not win, because he did not get a majority of the vote; the winner will be decided in a run-off between Kennedy and Campbell.

So – suppose we were using the popular vote to decide who would be President of the United States. As of the latest counts, Hillary Clinton has 47.7% and Donald Trump 47.3%, with the other candidates splitting the remaining 5.0%. Under Alaska rules, Clinton would win. Under Louisiana rules, we’d need a run-off between the two.

We don’t have a rule covering the popular vote in the U.S. Presidential election (since we don’t choose the President that way), so let’s look at the rules for the Electoral College. To win that vote, you must have a majority, not just a plurality. Suppose Clinton had held onto Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Alaska had gone Libertarian. That would have given Clinton 268 electors, Trump 267, and Johnson 3. The result would not have been a Clinton victory, but the election being dumped in the lap of Congress, with the House choosing the President and the Senate choosing the Vice-President (as provided for by the Twelfth Amendment).

And we’re not even considering the fact that if the President were to be selected based on the nationwide popular vote, the campaigns would have been conducted very differently and many people would have voted differently, undoubtedly resulting in a different distribution of the popular vote. Given the electoral dynamics this year, anyone who claims to know for certain how that vote would have come out is either lying or delusional.

So can we please bury this nonsensical idea that Clinton “won the popular vote”?

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