The Electoral College did more in 2016 than you might think

As the attacks on the Electoral College continue, we can see how important the Electoral College is from the 2016 presidential election results.  Many observers have noted that Clinton's margin in California was greater than her plurality nationwide.  Many observers have also argued that without the Electoral College, a couple or a few large states would dominate elections.  What few if any have noticed is that in 2016, the Electoral College prevented 3 out of 3,141 counties with about 5% of the electorate and population from picking the president.

According to the New York Times election results, Hillary Clinton received 2,868,519 or about 2% more than President Trump out of the 128,838,731 votes the two major party candidates received.  The county-by-county vote totals from the Times show that in 2016, the Electoral College saved the U.S. from one or a couple of state picking the president.  In 2016, Clinton won Los Angeles County, Calif., 2,464,364 to 769,743, or by 1,694,621 votes.  She also won Cook County (Chicago), Illinois 1,611,946 to 453,287, or by 1,158,659 votes.  So Clinton's margin in just two counties, L.A. and Cook, was 2,853,280, just 15,239 votes short of her 2,868,519 vote plurality nationwide.

Now, maybe this story would be neater if Clinton's plurality came from just two counties.  Still, the facts are that those 15,239 votes must be made up by a third county.  There are a few counties with a Clinton margin greater than 15,239 votes in 2016, but the one with the third greatest Clinton margin in 2016 was New York County (Manhattan), New York, where she won 579,013 to 64,929 or by 514,084 votes.  That means that Clinton won L.A., Chicago, and Manhattan by 3,367,364, or by 498,845 votes more than her nationwide 2,868,519 plurality.

Put another way, without those three counties, President Trump would have had an almost half-million (498,845) vote plurality in 2016.  This Trump plurality would have come from California, including San Francisco less L.A. County; Illinois, less Cook County; New York including Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, less Manhattan; plus the other 47 states and Washington, D.C. 

I will happily concede that urban counties like Cook, Los Angeles, New York, and others have important problems that they want addressed.  In part to address these problems, the U.S. has a Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The U.S. government also has Departments of Agriculture and the Interior among others because other Americans also have concerns.  Thanks to the Electoral College, politicians must appeal to voters in more than 3 out of a total 3,141 counties in the U.S., even if they can run up a huge plurality in three counties. 

Keep in mind when you hear or read the continuing attacks on the Electoral College that without it, in 2016, three counties would have picked the president. 

James Swofford is a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, Finance and Real Estate at the University of South Alabama.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commonspublic domain.

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