Trump, Clinton and a fair voting system

An image of Donald Trump wearing a dark suit and a blue and white striped tie with an angry expression on his face with the number 62,976,636 superimposed on his chest, standing next to a painting of Hilary Clinton in a dark blue pantsuit, smiling, with the number 65,844,610 superimposed across it.There’s a claim that has been repeated a lot on social media by former Hilary Clinton supporters (the graphic on the right posted to Twitter by Victoria Brownworth being an example) that Trump won only because of the electoral college; Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump and had there been a fair voting system where every vote counted the same, rather than an electoral college that dates from the time of slavery and over-represents small and predominantly white states at the expense of urbanised states with large minority populations, Clinton would have won. On the face of it, this appears to be true. However, this overlooks the 6 or so million Americans that voted for neither Clinton nor Trump, and particularly those who voted for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.

Most countries with a directly-elected president use preferential voting or multiple rounds. In the first system, voters list candidates in preference order and when no single candidate receives an outright majority, the least voted-for candidates are eliminated, their second or third preferences are counted. This means that a candidate which received the most first-preference votes may not win the election, as someone else may come out on top because those who voted for a minority candidate may have cast their second-preference votes for the person who came second in the first round. So, if most of Gary Johnson’s voters had voted for Trump as a second preference, he still could have won. (Of course, it’s possible that they wouldn’t have done; he received a greater share of the vote than Libertarians normally do because he was not Donald Trump. But it may well have been true, for example, with Bush junior in 2000, who also won more states despite gaining fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore.)

The majority of modern democracies do not use a “first past the post” system in which the biggest single share of votes is enough to win a position. This system persists in the UK largely because of entrenched vested interests — the two major parties are unlikely to command an outright majority in the House of Commons again if it is abolished — but it’s generally considered a bad way of running elections simply because a candidate can win on less than 40% of the vote, let alone 50, if their opponents are divided. A simple popular vote for the US presidency would be fairer than the current system, but a system in which the most popular loser wins is still not a fair system.

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