In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote by about one half of one percent, while George W Bush won the electoral college by 5 votes. The votes, in effect, were awarded by the SCOTUS. There were four states in which Gore won by less than 1% of the popular vote. There was no state where Bush won by less by a percent, assuming that we consider Florida a tie.
Nevertheless some think that a popular vote would have someone automatically awarded Gore the election. Some conservatives are even on the bandwagon thinking that they can manipulate the popular vote in a way that they cannot manipulate the electoral college due to the current composition of many states.
I disagree. A popular vote would not help the process in general, and would kept the SCOTUS from deciding the 2000 election. There is a key change we could make in the electoral college that would bring it closer to an electoral vote, but such a change will likely not happen because almost half the states benefit. Reasoning is below the fold.
In the case of the 200 election the two candidates were separated by a little more than 543,000 votes. According to the US Census there were 111 million votes out of the 130 million registered voters in the 2000 election. That meant that Gore had a popular advantage of just under half a percent in the votes.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, of the states(and DC) that have automatic recount thresholds in 2010, the most common threshold is 0.5%. It would be reasonable to believe that this would be the threshold for a US popular vote. While liberals might argue that Gore achieved this half a percent threshold, one can assume that the conservatives would petition the court for a decision, likely resulting in the SCOTUS deciding the election even in our fantasy scenario.
For the sake of argument what would change if we did have a popular election for president. Clearly in 2000 would might have still had a court case. In 2004 there likely would have no difference.
It is also said that popular vote will make every vote count. Ok, let's take a look at the recent election In 2012. It could be argued that many votes were effectively minimized as the election was called soon after the last poll closed and while voters were still in line waiting to cast their ballot. But let us look at the other side. Florida was not finished counting votes until Wednesday. While the votes may have counted enough for a popular vote win late in the voting day, that would still leave votes which were not applied to the win of one candidate or another. Like, as reported today, California, Oregon, and Washington all have non trivial number of votes to count. So unless we are also willing to move the outcome of the election several days, there are still going to be voters who 'votes do not count.'
Another argument for moving from the electoral college is so that we don't have 'swing states'. I don't believe we really have swing states, just states where it is more economical to get voters for a particular party. We would still have money flowing into those areas. In fact a popular vote might make election more expensive, as I will talk about at a later time.
So, I don't think a popular vote is much better than the electoral college. This change is elegant, simple, and politically impossibile. It is simply removing the senate from the electoral college. How much change would this adjustment make. A lot. As in bush would have lost the 2000 election.
In 2000 Bush received 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266. Bush won 30 states, Gore 20+DC. If the two senate seat for each state were not counted, Bush would have 211 electoral votes, Gore 226. In the new reality 219 electoral votes would be required to win. Gore wins, Florida becomes irrelevant.
Clearly one issue with this policy change is that conservatives tend to win smaller states with fewer votes, so removing the senate seats would not be beneficial to them. However this isn't a conservative versus liberal problem, it is a sense of entitlement
Small state think they are entitled to power simply because they exist. They do not have an economy, a quality of life, or any attractions to any significant numbers of residents. However they feel entitled to have an unequal say in who gets to be president. Twelve states have only four or fewer electoral votes. That means the two senate votes doubles their influence on the election of a president. If we include those states with six electoral votes or fewer, they form a block that prevent any constitutional amendement that might seek to create a more popular vote. These are state like North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, many of who promote self sufficiency, deride government handouts, and say that immigration. Well certainly when no one wants to live in your state, immigration is bad as all the talent is going elsewhere
But I digress. If we do the math it turns out that any state with under 11 electoral vote gains an advantage, and any state with 11 or over is disadvantaged. All said, about two thirds of the states are in the advantage column. Although the advantage decreases as a state moves from 3 electoral votes to 10 electoral votes, there is no reason to assume that majority is going to relinquish power to the minority, both figuratively and in reality.
This inequity between large and small states, looking at the electoral votes over time, seem to be of increasing consequence. If a severe republican is every elected, it wil be in no small part because the small states have an extra two votes. Since 1984, the last time that Republican elected a non-incumbent president in a landslide, it has been the Democrats who have been getting the electoral votes. Even in reelection Bush only had a 35 electoral vote advantage, a count that would have allowed him to win by only 5 electoral votes if the senate votes were not counted.