The goal of this work is to shed light on voter inequality in U.S. presidential elections. The inequality is prescribed by the Constitution, so that's not in question. The questions are do we still want it this way, are people aware of the degree of inequality, and did the Founding Fathers foresee such great inequalities?
The method of presidential election imparted by the United States Constitution takes the votes of over 100 million people and condenses them into a mere 538 votes. This may be fundamental civics, but what is rarely explored is how the method devalues some voters and inflates the power of others. In this essay I intend to introduce a tangible measure of voter power that will hopefully arouse more demand for fairness in presidential voting. It is a simple and direct gauge, but one political scientists seem to have missed. For an immediate absorption of the message, simply study the table of data. Vote weight is what I'll call this measure. How it is calculated is described below.
|State||vote weight||people per elector||people per House seat
||Wyoming || 3.175|| 165,000|| 495,000
||Washington D.C. || 2.739|| 191,000|| 574,000 **
||Vermont || 2.578|| 203,000|| 609,000
||Alaska || 2.500|| 209,000|| 628,000
||North Dakota || 2.443|| 214,000|| 643,000
||South Dakota || 2.078|| 252,000|| 756,000
||Delaware || 2.003|| 261,000|| 785,000
||Rhode Island || 1.997|| 262,000|| 524,000
||Montana || 1.737|| 301,000|| 905,000
||Hawaii || 1.723|| 304,000|| 608,000
||New Hampshire || 1.693|| 309,000|| 619,000
||Maine || 1.641|| 319,000|| 638,000
||Idaho || 1.616|| 324,000|| 648,000
||Nebraska || 1.528|| 343,000|| 571,000
||West Virginia || 1.445|| 362,000|| 604,000
||New Mexico || 1.437|| 364,000|| 607,000
||Nevada || 1.309|| 400,000|| 667,000
||Iowa || 1.251|| 418,000|| 586,000
||Arkansas || 1.174|| 446,000|| 669,000
||Utah || 1.172|| 447,000|| 745,000
||Kansas || 1.167|| 448,000|| 673,000
||Mississippi || 1.102|| 475,000|| 713,000
||Colorado || 1.094|| 479,000|| 615,000
||Connecticut || 1.076|| 487,000|| 681,000
||Oregon || 1.070|| 489,000|| 685,000
||Minnesota || 1.064|| 492,000|| 615,000
||Oklahoma || 1.061|| 494,000|| 691,000
||Alabama || 1.057|| 495,000|| 637,000
||Louisiana || 1.053|| 497,000|| 640,000
||South Carolina || 1.042|| 503,000|| 670,000
||Kentucky || 1.036|| 506,000|| 674,000
||Missouri || 1.028|| 509,000|| 622,000
||Arizona || 1.020|| 514,000|| 642,000
||Tennessee || 1.012|| 518,000|| 633,000
||Massachusetts || 0.990|| 529,000|| 635,000
||Maryland || 0.988|| 530,000|| 663,000
||Wisconsin || 0.976|| 537,000|| 671,000
||Washington || 0.976|| 537,000|| 656,000
||North Carolina || 0.975|| 537,000|| 620,000
||Virginia || 0.960|| 546,000|| 645,000
||Georgia || 0.958|| 547,000|| 631,000
||Indiana || 0.947|| 553,000|| 676,000
||New Jersey || 0.933|| 561,000|| 648,000
||Ohio || 0.922|| 568,000|| 631,000
||Michigan || 0.895|| 585,000|| 663,000
||Pennsylvania || 0.895|| 585,000|| 647,000
||Illinois || 0.885|| 592,000|| 654,000
||Florida || 0.883|| 593,000|| 641,000
||New York || 0.855|| 613,000|| 655,000
||Texas || 0.853|| 614,000|| 653,000
||California || 0.850|| 616,000|| 640,000
We elect with a timeworn method that suddenly came under scrutiny when it allowed George W. Bush to win office even though he received fewer votes than another candidate. The filtration of 100 million votes into only 538 Electoral College votes (electors) produced a victory for Bush. Throw in the fact that a large chunk of electors (Florida) went to Bush by only a few hundred votes, and many are justifyably asking if this is the best we can do.
In the wake of the 2000 election, many could be heard defending the system, invoking the old "the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing" line. Incidentally, most of the people saying so were on the side of the winner (at least that was my impression). Further debate was squelched by tagging questioners of the Electoral College (EC) as "sore losers." Since the Constitution allows itself to be changed, the issue is definitely worthy of scrutiny. (Note: I voted for neither Bush nor Gore, so it's not sour grapes for me.)
Also, the vision of the framers of the Constitution has already been drastically altered. The Constitution contains a guideline that implies each House Seat should represent about 30,000 people. That would require having about 9,400 House seats today! Why are supporters of the Electoral College not clamoring for a giant House, if they so highly value the ideas of 1787? (To see how the Table of voter data would look if we did have 9,400 House seats, click here.)
Supporters of the status quo will also say that we are a republic, and therefore no one should expect a "democratic" vote. That argument really does not hold water. What makes a republic is the fact that a small number of representatives do our governing. How those representatives are selected is another matter entirely, and certainly the citizens of the republic should be interested in fair elections.
Opponents of the Electoral College might try to taint its reputation with claims that the Founding Fathers did not trust the layman enough to grant a direct popular vote for president. Other esoteric arguments about the intentions of the Constitution can certainly be found on both sides. What I have set out to challenge is not the philosophy, but the math.
One absolute truth about the Electoral College is that it gives low-population states disproportionately greater electoral power. The number of House Representatives any state has is (roughly) proportional to the state's population. We are told the framers of the Constitution wisely realized that the smallest states could become nearly irrelevant without some way to check the power of large states. Thus, the Senate has two members from every state regardless of population. Now, because a state's number of electors is defined to be its combined number of Senate and House seats, state representation in the EC is skewed in an odd way. States with only one House seat get three electors, while a state with 23 seats gets 25 electors. That amounts to a tripling of EC representation for the low-population state, but only a nine percent skew for the high-population state. People in less populated states have more say in who is president than their fellow citizens in well-populated states. Whether or not this is a desirable design, hardly anyone seems aware of just how biased the numbers are. To illustrate, I have collected the populations of the states from the last census and the numbers of electors that will be used in 2004 and 2008. It is a fairly easy task to then calculate the true value of an individual vote. Dividing a state's number of electors by its population, we have a measure of how many electoral votes each citizen's vote is worth. That number is a tiny decimal, so it is multiplied by a normalizing factor (the national population divided by 538) in order to get an average value of one. This number represents the true weight of an individual citizen's vote. It is different for every state, and some of the differences are staggering (see table above).
Is it "democratic" when a citizen in upstate New York counts as only 33% of their neighbor a few miles away in Vermont? We are not even close to the "one man, one vote" ideal. A Wyoming voter has 3.74 times more power than a Californian! There is certainly an argument to be made for protecting the interests of a small state, but let's ask what is reasonable, and acknowledge that there is something strange about one small state having significantly more power than another, which is the case now. Should a South Dakotan admire the fact that friends in North Dakota have 18% more vote weight? Both states are highly vote-advantaged relative to the likes of Texas and Florida, but then why the mis-match in voting power between two states of nearly identical physical size, climate, culture, economy, etc.? Does North Dakota really need Constitutional advantage over South Dakota because they're one city away from having the same population? I suspect most Dakotans would simply prefer true voting equality.
I put forth that the interests of low-population states are already well protected through the existence of the Senate (where, for example, Wyoming has power equal to California, despite having 1/69th the population). Those who agree might think we could improve the EC by dropping the two electors produced by each state's two Senate seats. Then representation in the EC would be the same as in the House, and thus proportional to population. Sorry! The numbers would then exhibit more parity, but the limitations of integer representation mean that for all the states having one elector, a range of populations would be present, and the least populated of those states would retain a significant voting advantage over the others. The same would be true for the group of states given two electors, the group with three, etc.
Indeed, the notion of giving numerical advantage to less populated states is violated in a few cases in practice. Rhode Island has 16% more people than Montana, yet Rhode Island's voters wield more power (see table). This happens basically because of egregious round-off errors involved in the calculations used for allotting House seats. If any state should be questioning the Constitution, it is Montana. Their population is almost twice that of Wyoming, yet both states have one House seat and three electoral votes. Meanwhile Rhode Island, with only slightly more people than Montana, lucks out and gets twice Montana's House representation and 33% more electoral power.
Removing the two extra electors from every state, Wyomingites would remain the most favored voters, at a weight of 1.306 votes per voter, and Montana would fall to the bottom with 0.714. However, 41 states would lie within the 0.9 to 1.1 region (currently 21 do). It would be an improvement, but then why not just convert to a national popular vote instead?
These calculations have assumed equal voter turnout percentages in all states, and that approximately the same fraction of people are of voting age in every state. Even though these assumptions are never quite true, no one can ever expect to develop a system that perfectly takes into consideration such whims of humans. The very fact that demographics can alter vote weights in various ways on short timescales simply reinforces the notion that the EC is absurd.
Additionally, adjusting the table by estimating voter turnouts, another major absurdity of the system is found. Imagine Californians take their low potency to heart and decide they would like to make their votes really count in the next election. Typically, groups who want to increase the sway of "democracy" will try to increase voter turnout. So, imagine some Californians go on a crusade to spread the word regarding the diminished value of their votes, and the effort ends up pushing their state turnout 5% above the national average. This scenario would actually result in quite the opposite of what one would expect in a democracy. Instead of empowering the interests of California, her high voter turnout would only further diminish the real value of votes in comparison to the rest of the nation! With more votes cast in a state, each person's share of the electoral pie decreases. In our example, California votes would drop to a weight of 0.78.
Or, more simply stated, as things presently work, in a state with high voter turnout each vote becomes less important, while in a state with low turnout, each vote becomes more valuable. This fact would probably strike most people as a bizarre folly.
If we insist on sticking with the EC, the first way to make it more fairly representative is to expand the number of House seats. That would allow finer population gradations in the allotment of seats and electors, and we would have a more representative congress to boot. As of now, House Reps have about 647,000 constituents on average. Unless the Constitution is amended, this figure will only rise as the population grows.
Further, by not restricting ourselves to integer values of electoral votes, we could fashion a more fair method. For example, some maximum vote weight could be established (1.5 might be thought a reasonable ceiling), and the least populated state of the day would be granted a number of electors specifically calculated to grant the maximum weight. For example, to give Wyoming votes a weight of 1.5, the state would be granted about 1.42 electors instead of the 3 it currently has.
Or we could just disregard the math, and let a vote be a vote.
When I wrote the material above in 2002, I wanted to keep my personal political philosophy out of the discussion. However, further reflection has brought me to a few opinions that I consider almost objective truths:
Supporters of the status quo like to point out that we are the United States of America. In their eyes, government is about states instead of people. I suppose that is a traditionally valid argument. However, I am not aware of any basis for considering the executive branch to be in power for the sake of states instead of individuals. If the federal government's only role was to obey the wills of states, then why do federal agencies ever deal with individual citizens? Are we not individually taxed by the federal government? If we take the "state's rights" people seriously, then the federal government should have no interactions with citizens and should only deal with state governments! Then how about doing away with the federal income tax on individuals and switching over to taxes on states? Then wouldn't it be logical to tax states in accordance with their Electoral College representation? You can bet if that was our taxation method, the EC would quickly become perfectly aligned with true population proportions!
Acceptance of the Electoral College flies in the face of the revolutionary spirit of 1776: No taxation without representation! A citizen earning $50,000/year in Florida will pay a federal tax equal to someone earning the same in Idaho (assuming identical tax status issues). Why does the Floridian pay an equal tax and accept an unequal vote? Seems insane to me.
Most of us today believe the executive branch is there to represent every citizen. It's too much of an abstraction to believe in a government that governs states instead of people! Do our soldiers die for their fellow citizens or for states? The answer is obvious. The president represents the people, and therefore should represent all of them equally.
November 2004 update: Now Republicans have reason to distrust the EC. Had John Kerry somehow managed to pull out Ohio (say by ONE vote!), Kerry would have won the EC, despite Bush getting a few million more votes nationwide.
*All calculations are based on populations from the 2000 US census. All state populations will change slightly over time.
**A helpful reader has pointed out that DC's House Representative is actually a figurehead without voting power in the House. How ridiculous is that?
The United States Constitution. Thanks to Yvonne Fischer for pointing out a broken link and suggesting this one for replacement.
Jon J. Dokter
visitors since February 18, 2002