Anyone who has heard discussion about the Electoral College has surely heard its defenders predict that if the system were abolished in favor of a national popular vote, presidential elections would be dominated by big cities. Donald Trump — himself an opponent of the Electoral College until it inverted an election for him — warned that “the cities would end up running the country” if a popular vote elected the president. As with so many political issues, race lies just under the surface in this discussion of “urban areas” taking control of the political system. Certain defenders of the system have gone ahead and made such an argument in no uncertain terms. In 2016, Bill O’Reilly, then the most-watched news man for twenty years running, warned that Democrats only wanted to abolish the Electoral College “because in large urban areas and blue states, minorities are substantial … The left wants power taken away from the white establishment.”
This argument is often presented in a simpler fashion by showing a map of the United States with the most populous counties highlighted. Some people remain shocked — shocked — that human population is concentrated in cities as it has been since the beginning of civilization. The image below, for instance, shows the most populous counties that comprise a majority of the US population, saying that this is the reason for the Electoral College. If only Federalist 68 had been so clear.
But is the premise of this argument actually true? Does the Electoral College actually make sure that the president cannot be elected by just the big cities? As with most claims in support of the Electoral College, this one is just factually wrong. The Electoral College actually makes it easier for big cities to single-handedly win an election than a popular vote, at least under the bizarre scenario imagined by the system's defenders in which the cities vote as single monoliths. To see this mapped out, take the image below.
In blue are how many counties you need to win the Electoral College. If a party — for simplicity, let's say the Democrats — won all the votes in the blue counties, they would win the Electoral College 272 - 266 without a single vote elsewhere. This map is based on 2010 state- and county-level census figures, and it assumes uniform voter turnout within states. That is to say, the blue counties constitute a majority of their respective states' populations. In such an election, the electoral map would look like this.
You'll notice that these counties are concentrated around the country's biggest cities: New York, Chicago, Houston, etc. While the pro-Electoral College map in gray shows the counties that would be needed to win a popular vote under these conditions, an Electoral College majority actually sees more potential concentration of power in cities. The popular vote map highlights more than 40 metro areas, while this Electoral College majority is made up of just 18. Assuming 2010 population for the popular vote map, a majority consists of 154 million people. The blue counties in the second electoral map only represent just under 88 million.
The reason why neither of these scenarios — the mostly gray population map and the mostly red electoral map — would ever happen is because they would require counties to vote for a candidate 100 percent or 0 percent respectively. But even if we dial it down to a less far-fetched 85 percent victory, the Electoral College would still allow cities to run the show. The next map repeats the same scenario, but with the Democrat winning 85 percent of the vote in blue counties.
There's no huge difference here. Once again, these cities, almost all the same as before, deliver the Democrat 272 electoral votes. 85 percent is still high, but it's definitely not unheard of. Of the blue counties on this map, five actually did go for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by more than 85 percent: in New York City, Bronx and New York counties; around Washington, D.C., Prince George's County and the District itself; and the city of Baltimore. Eleven more of these selected counties went more than 70 percent for Clinton.
So what's the deal? Why can the Electoral College be won with just a smaller number of cities than the popular vote, despite its supporters claiming it to be a bulwark against the urban hordes, with their "substantial" minorities? The answer lies with the "winner take all" allocation system. Under a popular vote, a majority can only be won with a majority. One vote anywhere adds one vote to that candidate's tally. However, under the Electoral College, you only need to win a majority of a majority. As we all know, 51 percent of a state's vote delivers all of its electors.
That's where cities come in. The United States population is heavily concentrated in cities. Only four states didn't have a majority-urban population in 2010. Even Montana was 55 percent urban at the last census. Across all states, an average of 76 percent live in urban areas. And the winner-take-all system allows for a large enough victory in the cities to deliver the whole state's electors.
Take the example of Illinois, a state with a stark urban-rural divide. With a slim majority of Illinois' population concentrated in just three counties around Chicago, those three counties alone can carry the electoral votes of all 13 million residents of the state, many of whom live in farming communities indistinguishable from neighboring Indiana and Iowa. The Electoral College allows Chicago voters to override the voters of Decatur or Mt. Pulaski and take their electoral votes. If there were such a city-country battle under a popular vote, this shortcut wouldn't be available to the cities.
So this argument about the Electoral College preventing an urban steamrolling of the election is simply wrong. You can win the Electoral College with just 18 of America's largest cities. I've written extensively about the data surrounding the Electoral College debate, previously demonstrating that it doesn't actually deliver any extra power to rural states or small states, and that it is an equally raw deal for both red and blue states. Once again, another argument for the Electoral College has turned out to be demonstrably false. In reality, voters in both the largest cities and the smallest farming towns would benefit from a voting system that treated them all equally.
For all population data referred to in this article, see here.