Election math gives Maine a key role

If Democrats want to win the election, they need to win big. The numbers speak against it.

The Democrats depend on democracy. They assume that if they get the majority of votes, they will win. Maybe not. They could lose the presidency and Congress because of the election bill.

In four presidential elections involving the two major parties, the new president did not receive a majority of the popular vote. All of the winners of these elections – Hayes (1876), Harrison (1888), Bush (2000) and Trump (2016) – were Republicans.

This result could well be repeated in 2024 because communication between the drafters of the constitution has failed. When they wrote the document, their plan would have been for the president to be elected by voters representing a majority of the population.

Before the first census, the Framers allocated seats in the House of Representatives based on population estimates. The result was that a presidential candidate relying on the smaller states would need nine of the 13 states to garner enough electoral votes. It is perhaps no coincidence that the framers of the Constitution required ratification by at least nine states for the Constitution itself to take effect.

But the drafters were also clear that a candidate relying on the larger states might only need six states to win the presidency. Voters in these states would represent 55% of the population, compared to 51% in the group of smaller states.

In both cases, when drafting the Constitution, the framers could have expected that the president would be elected by majority states, even if he was not elected by a majority of states.

The story didn't follow this rule. Today it is mathematically possible for 41 smaller states to elect the president, even though they only represent 46% of the population. At the other extreme, the president of 12 states could be elected by 60% of the population.

Of course, states do not vote according to population blocs, but according to parties. Many small, rural states are controlled by Republicans, who also dominate former Confederate states like Texas and Florida. The Republican candidate can win without a majority of the population, as Donald Trump did in 2016.

The proposed National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would restore the traditional expectation of a popular majority. States with a majority of the electoral vote would agree to all of their votes being assigned to the presidential candidate who won a majority of the national popular vote. They would only be bound if all participating states respected this obligation.

Maine just became the latest state to accept the national popular vote. By narrowing the gap to just 61 electoral votes needed for entry, the state's move is significant.

Inevitably, the Supreme Court will be asked to rule on the treaty, and its decision will almost certainly be heavily influenced by politics. In theory, however, the national popular vote could take place without a pact as the result of independent decisions by states with 270 electoral votes.

Maine is also in the president's focus thanks to the way the country selects its voters. The state, and later Nebraska, decided to assign electors to the statewide winner and the winner in each congressional district. Other states use the statewide winner-take-all system. The second district in each state has occasionally deviated from the state's overall result.

Looking for another possible election for Donald Trump, Nebraska is considering returning to all-statewide voting to eliminate the possibility of Biden carrying Omaha. A Maine Democratic leader has warned Cornhuskers that Maine could retaliate by denying Trump the chance to win a single vote.

Just as the current method of electing president favors one party, the same applies to electing members of Congress. State legislatures can draw congressional district boundaries to divide groups of voters, leading to biased results. Gerrymandering is sometimes aimed at limiting Black seats, but often focuses on favoring one party.

Both parties are unaffiliated, but the GOP is making its moves in Texas and Florida — the second and third largest states by population. The Supreme Court tries to prevent racial discrimination but avoids most disputes over political redistricting unless they have racial implications. A lot of gerrymandering has already taken place, so the court would have to clarify previous actions.

Such creative redistricting in the House of Representatives is compounded by voter suppression, often aimed at restricting minority voting. It is based on unproven claims by Republicans about possible fraud in federal elections (but not in elections in their own states). It undermines efforts to increase participation.

Popular control over elections will not improve in this year's elections. Democrats would have to focus their attention on election issues to lure away their supporters. Given the realities of the election, to win seats from the White House to the Capitol, Democrats must win by wide margins and gain swing states.

Gordon L. Weil previously wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, was a member of the U.S. Senate and the EU staff, headed Maine state agencies, and was Harpswell's election commissioner.

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