Win 38 cities and you become President; or, why the electoral college matters

UPDATE (2019-05-03): It has been pointed out to me that elections in cities do not typically lean so heavily to one side as to make what I’m discussing a likely possibility. That sort of thinking misses the point. It matters not because of its likelihood, but because it is possible. We are seeing very recent (as of May 2018) trends in legislation that are designed to directly modify the power of an individual’s vote in ways that no one could have foreseen, including a recent law proposed in California which was explicitly designed to block President Donald Trump (and no other potential candidate) from being eligible for re-election, and a set of laws under the umbrella term “National Popular Vote” which is supposedly an end run around the Constitution to force the popular vote to be the determining number for Presidential election, but ironically works by “reverse electoral college-ing” the votes in the states that pass it. It is therefore a reasonable concern that the areas discussed in my original article below could pass laws (similar to the NPV movement laws) that flip all non-winning votes in their districts to match the winner of the district by local popular vote (which would practically be nothing more than a highly localized form of the electoral college.)

When is “fairness” not actually fair?

In the past 20 years, two Republicans have won the electoral college vote while losing the popular vote, making them President of the United States of America despite having less than 50% of the voter base wanting them to win. I don’t want to go into detail about the mechanics of the electoral college here, but you need to read up on what the electoral college is and how it works before reading any further. Suffice it to say that the President is not elected by the people, but by the electoral college, and this system exists primarily to protect the interests of rural areas from being wholly dismissed based on not having a high population count.

When your candidate loses a Presidential election despite winning the popular vote, you’re going to get mad because you feel like your person should have won. It’s difficult to argue against those screaming “one person, one vote, otherwise it’s not fair” because their appeal to fairness based on equal value of human beings is easy to make and is a core ideal that all free societies strive towards. The truth is that the electoral college is an unfair thing, but it’s unfair because what happens without it is ironically a far more unfair situation, a situation that the National Popular Vote movement in particular is trying to force upon us.

Voters in just 38 cities can unilaterally elect the President.

I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. 38 of what are called “metropolitan statistical areas” are where half of the total United States population lives. These include the major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, plus the suburban and economic areas immediately surrounding them that are “closely economically tied to the core,” a fancy way for saying that they may have different names but they’re part of the major city for all practical purposes.

If we ignore a few details that would require far more time than I’m willing to spend (number of citizens who are eligible to vote and voter turnouts, to name a couple) we can quickly confirm this is plausible based on one extremely simple metric: population of these combined metropolitan areas relative to the total population. We need to add up the population counts until we reach a figure that is roughly 1/2 of the United States population of 328 million. If you want to follow along, pull up the table yourself and start adding numbers.


Winning the popular vote by the numbers

The largest metropolitan statistical area which is basically New York and the cities and towns that make up its suburbs is over 20 million people, representing at least 6.1% of the entire population of the country, packed into 6,720 square miles of space which is 0.18% of the total land in the United States.

The next largest (LA-Long Beach-Anaheim) is over 13 million people or at least 3.96% of the total population. That’s a whopping 10% in the top two metro areas. The vast majority of the largest MSAs vote Democrat and based on some simple math from the list of MSAs on Wikipedia, the top 30 MSAs (all of which are “blue”) have a population of roughly 148.5M which is not far from half (164M) of the 328M population of the country.

Once you get to the 38th ranked MSA in terms of population, the total population hits the halfway point. Technically, I think it’s about 200,000 people short, but enough “blue” areas exist outside of the top 38 MSAs that 200K people is essentially background noise. I stopped at MSA #38 because MSA #39 (also “blue”) pushes the total 1.3M beyond half of the population. Win 100% of the votes in the top 38 (if you’re practical) or 39 (if you’re a hardass and desperately don’t want me to be right) cities and their suburbs and you’ve won the Presidency, end of story, no further votes needed.

7% of the country picks the President for all 100% of the people

People making arguments such as “the 100 biggest cities in the US are not even 50% of the population” are technically correct. The 38 biggest metropolitan areas make up half of the population and as far as I can tell, they’re ALL “blue.” There are over 300 MSAs and a sizable amount of the USA isn’t covered by an MSA at all. With an average square mileage of 6,839 sq. mi. (based on the size of the top 10 MSAs only since I’m lazy) inside a country that covers 3,794,101 sq. mi., that’s about 3,534,218 sq. mi. of the country (a whopping 93.15%) whose votes become completely irrelevant. It’s true that New York and Los Angeles can’t pick the president on sheer population counts, but the sentiment behind that assertion is 100% correct.

The bottom line

If we’re playing the popular vote game instead of the electoral college game under the existing first-past-the-post voting system where >50% = winner takes all, simply winning every vote in the top 38 metropolitan statistical areas will immediately win you the Presidential election and the rest of the country literally does not matter. Adjust as you want for not winning 100% of the votes and the number of required MSAs increases, but it always remains true that winning enough metro areas in the election wins the popular vote.

If this tyranny of the majority that the “fairness” of the popular vote being how we elect the President sounds a lot more unfair now, that’s because it is, and the math proves it. The electoral college makes all of the states (and the entirety of each state) relevant in Presidential elections and representation rather than only a few extremely dense cities.

Bonus fact: any argument against the electoral college can be made against keeping the Senate, too. The Senate grants all states an equal amount of votes despite vast size and population differences. For some reason, those who so adamantly fight the continued existence of the electoral college never have anything to say about abolishing the Senate. I’d speculate that this is because they want the EC gone due to being mad about their candidate losing an election and parroting what they’ve heard without doing the smallest bit of critical thinking. I’ve tried to bring this to the attention of people advocating for EC abolition, but for some strange reason they always block me before a conversation can take place. Radical ideologues are not known for being able to think for themselves.

2 thoughts on “Win 38 cities and you become President; or, why the electoral college matters

  1. Why is it a “tyranny of the majority?” – right now it’s a “tyranny of the minority.” The ENTIRE point of a vote is so that the most popular candidate wins.

    1. Your argument has already been addressed in the text. The President is elected by the individual states, not the population as a whole. We had a full-blown civil war over people from densely populated areas steamrolling people from less densely populated areas in the government. To illustrate: New York City dwellers have no understanding of the needs of a Wyoming rancher, nor do they have any reason to care about those needs. The federal government needs to take into account the needs of all of the people under its control, but going with the popular vote alone effectively excludes the vast majority of the states from having a say in who rules over them and addresses their needs. The most popular candidate by popular vote should not win; the most popular candidate by number of states should win. If we move to a national popular vote, expect a civil war within the next 30 years.

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