The 2016 Electoral College Vote Destroyed The Illusion Of U.S. Democracy

Here are some facts: Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election by 2.8 million votes (or 2.1 percent of the electorate). Yesterday, the Electoral College agreed to make Donald Trump president of the United States. When he’s is sworn into office in January, two of the last three men to occupy the West Wing and control the largest military and nuclear arsenal on earth will have lost the popular vote. Hashtag democracy, am I right?

Many activists and academics hoped individual members of the Electoral College would intervene and uphold the popular vote this year. It would have been an unprecedented move, but this was an unprecedented election and Donald Trump (and his administration) will be the greatest threat to ever set up camp in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, the pleas of the desperate, patriotic electorate proved no match for the sycophantic party loyalists who make up the 538 state electors. Ironically, the only electors who broke party ranks were Democrats: three electors from Washington State voted for Republican Colin Powell and one voted for Native American tribal leader Faith Spotted Eagle. The two Texas electors who didn’t cast votes for Trump stayed true to their party, casting one vote each for Ron Paul and John Kasich. And the Hawaiian elector who didn’t vote for Clinton stayed in-party as well, casting a vote for Bernie Sanders.

For all the hand-wringing the mainstream media has done this year about How We Got Here, the answer is actually pretty simple: racism and misogyny. The Electoral College really exists because when the Founding Fathers were sorting this whole thing out, slave-owning states wanted as much political capital as non-slave owning states, something that was hard to come by when a large portion of a state’s population was made up of people who couldn’t vote because they were considered property. Yale poli-sci professor Akhil Reed Amar laid it bare in his interview with Vox days after this year’s election:

In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time … but an Electoral College allows states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that’s what gave the South the inside track in presidential elections. And thus it’s no surprise that eight of the first nine presidential races were won by a Virginian. (Virginia was the most populous state at the time, and had a massive slave population that boosted its electoral vote count.)

This pro-slavery compromise was not clear to everyone when the Constitution was adopted, but it was clearly evident to everyone when the Electoral College was amended after the Jefferson-Adams contest of 1796 and 1800. These elections were decided, in large part, by the extra electoral votes created by slavery. Without the 13 extra electoral votes created by Southern slavery, John Adams would’ve won even in 1800, and every federalist knows that after the election. And yet when the Constitution is amended, the slavery bias is preserved.

And, of course, the slavery bias is still preserved. The Republican party in North Carolina suppressed the black community’s ability to vote with “an almost surgical precision,” according to a the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in July. A federal court ruled Wisconsin’s voter ID laws, which disproportionately disenfranchise people of color and caused more than 300,000 voters to be turned away from the polls on election day, unconstitutional (but permitted the laws to persist through the election). According to Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago, “voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in 20 years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives.” In Florida, an estimated one in four black voters (1.5 million people, total) weren’t able to cast their ballot this year because of a criminal conviction law that was — surprise! — “designed in the years after the Civil War in a deliberate attempt to dilute the voting power of freed slaves.”

When the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to remove the section of the Voting Rights Act that required historically oppressive states to receive federal permission before changing voting laws, Chief Justice Roberts said it was because “the country has changed.” He was wrong.

Despite Alexander Hamilton’s poetic waxing about the last gap saving grace of the Electoral College, it’s a system — like so many U.S. institutions — that was set up to reward racism. Donald Trump won the Electoral College through state-sanctioned voter suppression of people of color in swing states, interference by a hostile foreign power in our democratic process, and meddling by a “non-partisan” organization of the federal government. And of the seven electors who didn’t adhere to their state’s pledged vote, a grand total of zero voted for popular vote winner Hillary Clinton.

228 years after the Constitution of the United States was ratified this country has never been less of a democracy.

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


  1. PLEASE NOTE and edit the post itself to reflect this! Two republicans in Texas did not vote for DJT – i worked on that effort here in TX and dangit we want a little credit! Also the native leader has a first name too, Faith.

  2. The Electoral College let down the entire US. They could and should have blocked Trump becoming president when they had all the proof they needed that Russian had helped rig the election his favour, and so had the FBI and media. They had also seen Trump’s cabinet picks and the know the damage they intend to do to minorities and their voting rights. But the Electoral College still didn’t vote for the true winner of the 2016 election: HRC. She won through the choice of the majority of voters and she was never going to be a threat to the democracy or safety of the US.

    Trump is the worst mistake America has ever made and the Electoral College are as to blame for this Hitler wanna-be as the Russian government, FBI, media, Trump voters and protest voters. Every one of them will see damage they’ve done in the coming 4 years.

  3. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.” —- Dumbledore on point.

    Autostraddle, this community, and the others fighting for what’s right are the light.

    I feel like we all just need one big, never ending hug right now. I’m sending you guys one virtually right now. Thanks, Heather and the rest of AS staff- for all you do. You all are nothing short of amazing. Same goes for my fellow readers!

    To add another Harry Potter reference, We’ve got our own Battle of Hogwarts brewing but we know which side we’re on. And we know we’ve got the strength, courage and community to win.

    “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

        • Let’s all start some kind of zany rumor about him, like he’s a cannibal and/or collects human bones or something. #MikePenceEatsBabies is a hashtag whose time has come.

    • I’m legitimately worried this might actually be a Republican long game and the party is going to let impeachment happen within a couple of years so they can seat Pence in the Oval Office. 2016 has been so completely batshit that this actually sounds like something that could happen now.

      • Could totally happen, considering all the material that’s going to be there when trump becomes president, like his business not being in a blind trust to all his conflicting interests that will come up because of it, whats fucked up is seeing just how scary the prospect of trumps continued presidency versus a mike pence presidency is :(

  4. While the prospect of our current PEOTUS becoming POTUS fills me with fear and anxiety that gets worse every day, I don’t think anything would have been solved if the electors had not followed the “will of the people”. I understand that the acts of voter suppression and media nonsense and fucking Comey (fuck him for fucking ever) mean that the results weren’t actually the will of the people, but I don’t think it was wise to hope that this would be solved by electors. Unfortunately, making sure that what is sure to be a hellish 4 years never happens again is going to take a lot of ground work at the local level. Instead of wringing our hands over electors, we all need to be taking a more active role in our local and state politics. It’s a long, arduous process, but, if the Rs can do it (and they have done a very good job of taking over most of the governments of the states in a 20+ year long process), so can we.

    Unless the Ds can find some leadership that understands how to play the long game, we are fucked. Since the current leadership seems pretty bad at seeing past their own noses, it’s up to people who can to get involved. The first place we can get involved is mid-term elections and house of representatives elections. The second place we can get involved is our state legislatures! The great thing about the USA is that a lot of power resides in the states! One thing the Rs got right is taking advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to mid-term elections. The minute Ds get their people start paying attention to these elections, things shift very much in our favor.

    Anyway, tl;dr, getting involved in state and local elections helps. Let’s do it!

    • I mean, has there anyone who was ever better at ‘playing the long game’ than Hillary Clinton? She’d been laying this groundwork for decades, it seems like.

      • You lay the groundwork for decades
        You have actual plans that make sense
        You win all 3 debates
        You take the high road
        You get 3 million votes more than the other guy
        But you still don’t win

        • I think it was Maddow who said that public perception of both candidates was exactly the same as it was at the beginning of the campaign. They were both “known quantities”, and unfortunately, she couldn’t overcome the decades of bad press by sexist and shitty media.

      • I couldn’t agree more, but unfortunately I think the Rs also played the long game by vilifying her in the media for decades. I think any other woman probably could have beat Voldemort but H just had too many cards stacked against her and too many people knew exactly what the Rs and media for years wanted them to think about her.

  5. We tend to forget about the Electoral College between presidential elections. Let’s all promise not to forget this time.

  6. The popular vote arguments are all ridiculous. If popular vote decided things, then they would have both campaigned differently. Also red voters in blue states would actually vote since their vote would matter, and same with blue voters in red states. You can’t say for certain that Hillary would have won the popular vote if everyone knew the popular vote decided it ahead of time. It’s just a faulty line of thinking.

    They both knew the rules going in, and so did everyone else. It would have been a disgrace if the electorate didn’t vote the way the people wanted.

    And the USA isn’t even a democracy to begun with. It’s a republic. A few million people in California and New York should not overwrite other smaller states. I understand the frustration with the electoral college, but that’s how it is and it’s a level playing field for everyone. It’s Hillary’s own fault for neglecting certain states.

    • Where you live, would not matter in a popular vote. A vote in New York is not worth more than one in Kansas. There is no need to level the playing field for ass backwards republicans that choose to live in the middle of bum fuck nowhere.

    • Just because they would have campaigned differently if it was a popular vote versus electoral college doesn’t mean that switching to a popular vote model is a bad idea. What everyone seems to be missing in this electoral college discussion is that it was not only about slavery, but also about pure process. They didn’t have a reliable mechanism for having a reasoned discussion on the merits of a candidate with the entire populace, hence our representative democracy so white dudes could select someone from their community to go have that reasoned discussion on their behalf. And while that’s still an issue because 300 million people having a discussion seems logistically impossible, it’s not the insurmountable burden it was back then, and we have so many things now that really undercut the need for our continued representative democracy (reliable news, the internet, airplanes, etc.), especially with regard to the electoral college.

      Finally, being a democracy and being a republic are not mutually exclusive. A republic just means we’re bound by a written constitution that will contain the will of the masses when they try to infringe upon the rights of the minority. We are a democratic republic, which means The People voted on the constitution that bounds our republic, and that The People vote on the representatives who govern the republic. Is that a perfect democracy? No. Is it a form of democracy? Yes.

  7. Trump was elected by the system in place to elect US presidents. I agree that it’s not a particularly democratic system, but he won with the system you have so he is president.

    If the electoral college had not voted him in that wouldn’t have been democratic, it would been chaos. At the very least you would have had riots from Trump supporters and the entire world economy would have tanked overnight and that’s the best case scenario.

  8. We need to stay on this electoral college thing, but we also need to start having substantive discussions about things we NEED in our country. For example, we should start a mass campaign to get an amendment added to the constitution guaranteeing positive rights to things like health care, a living wage, an education, and a roof over everyone’s head. We have to push our country forward, and the only way we’re going to do that is if we push the debate beyond the 250 year old conversations and instead push the progressive envelope further than it every has been pushed before.

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