More on the Electoral College

Building on yesterday’s post about why we have the Electoral College.

This comes out of the Electoral College Facebook thread I started. (Lots of interesting commentary within.)

I get that people don’t think it’s fair that Presidential votes in one state seem to be worth more than Presidential votes from another state. But guess what? IT’S TRUE! They are. In order to help illustrate why, I’m going to post a grossly oversimplified string of arguments from the Constitutional Convention when the framers were trying to settle on a system of government that would make it possible for 13 individual, independent states to surrender power to a federal government:

BIG STATES: We should elect presidents based on a nationwide popular vote.

SMALL STATES: NO! We don’t have many people. That would  subject us to the tyranny of the big states. All states are equal, we should elect presidents based on one vote per state.

BIG STATES: NO! We have many more people and will contribute much more to the national treasury. That would subject us to the tyranny of the small states.

ALL STATES: What do we do? It is clearly in all of our best interests if we can form one unified country so that we can live in peace, secure the blessings of liberty, and enjoy the incredible benefits of free commercial intercourse between us. Perhaps we can find some compromise that allows us to join together?

And after much discussion, they design a system called the Electoral College that gives the votes of the small states a slightly larger weighting in the national presidential election and the big states a slightly smaller weighting.

SMALL STATES: Well, this is still kind of a drag for us because we still don’t have a very big say in Presidential elections, but it’s better than it was and the BENEFITS OF UNION should be pretty huge. I guess we can live with this.

BIG STATES: Yeah, it’s kind of a drag for us, too, but because we still have the great preponderance of Electoral College votes and the BENEFITS OF UNION greatly outweigh the cost to us of a decrease in the weight of our votes in national presidential elections, we can live with it, too.

ALL STATES: Great! Let’s ratify this thing.

The Electoral College is part of THE ORIGINAL COMPROMISE that made it possible for 13 independent states to come together and form THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Feel free to revise it–if you can get three-quarters of the states to agree.

So how does the Electoral College do that, and how large are the distortions caused? My friend Anna Birdy Ball asked that question. She lives in South Dakota, I live in California, and therein lies an excellent example:

First, the how:

Each state gets one Electoral College vote for each member it has in the United States Congress. So, 2 senators from each state, which every state gets regardless of its population, plus the number of members of the House of Representatives as determined by the US Census conducted every ten years.

Since every state has at least one member of the House of Representatives and two senators, no state has less than 3 votes in the Electoral College (including Washington, DC).

The key to bumping up the influence of the small states (and diluting the power of the big states) in the EC is those senatorial votes because the +2 given to the small states is much more proportionally significant than the +2 for the large states.

Back to Anna’s example (using statistics from the 2012 election):

There are 538 Electoral votes in the United States. South Dakota has three of them. So South Dakota has a .0055 say in the Presidential election. (Six tenths of a percent, rounding up; note that this is a lot less than the 1 vote per state method, which would give SD a 2% say.)

In  2012, SD had 528,621 registered voters, out of 146,311,000 registered voters in the United States, which means that South Dakota would have had a .0036 say in a popular vote Presidential election. (Four-tenths of a percent, rounding up.)

As for California, we had 11.8% of the registered voters (again 2012), and our 55 EV’s were worth 10.2% of the EC total. And since 270 EC votes are all that are needed to push a candidate over the top, California has fully a 20% say in the election of a President. (Holy cow, that’s a lot! Even if our per capita votes are weighted slightly less than those in South Dakota and other small states.)

So South Dakota electoral votes are worth 33.33% MORE in the Electoral College system than they would be in a popular vote presidential election (the difference between 4 tenths of a percent and 6 tenths of a percent), and California’s votes are worth about 10% LESS than they would be in a nationwide popular vote election. Which feels just about right in terms of what is the maximum “bump” large states would be willing to allow small states to have and the maximum “dip” they would allow their own votes to suffer because they still have a relatively large share of the national total.

And even with the distortions intentionally caused by the Electoral College, California has more than 10% of the say and South Dakota has less than 1%.

(Hopefully, I’ve done the maths correctly.)

BTW: Alaska, North Dakota, Washington, DC, Vermont, and Wyoming all have smaller populations that South Dakota. They are all 3 EV places, so their electoral votes will be proportionally more “heavy” than South Dakota’s in the above example.



  1. Greg,

    I know I’m many years late to this. Thank you for our discussion last night on this topic. Your explanation is the best I’ve ever read and I wish that more would read this.

  2. And yes, utterly pointless to talk about abolishing it. As at the founding, small states are never going to ratify. A Constitutional amendment on this is never going to happen.

    What might happen, though, is the interstate compact that is gaining a lot of support because it doesn’t require any change in the constitution or even in federal law. It will also be fragile. Imagine in the current situation if electors from Utah and Alabama told their people that they were going to cast their electoral votes for Clinton despite the constitution. Imagine the outcry then.

    The problem for the Dems: small, rural states are increasingly Republican
    The problem for the Republicans: even those states are getting younger and less white.

    1. I don’t support the interstate compact you mention. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I certainly don’t want California’s 55 electoral votes going to the winner of the national popular vote winner if that winner doesn’t line up with the vote within California. I want California to register California’s vote in EVERY case.

  3. This is all true, but also incomplete. First, the true part. Coming from a state with only three electoral votes, I fully appreciate the importance of a system that prevents a few huge states from running the Union and, in some sense, disenfranchising Vermont.

    So though the EC has in recent history brought in one terrible president who lost the popular vote and one even worse president elect who lost the popular vote, if you’re playing the long game, I believe it still has a role.

    The incomplete part, though, is the troubling part. You must not forget that it is fundamentally a racist institution and, now more than ever, let’s not sweep that under the rug. The EC was important to placate lower-population, Southern states. The 3/5s compromise that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person, apportioned more delegates to the South while still preventing all those slaves from voting. This gave the South enough electoral votes to frequently elect pro-slavery Virginians (or the next closest thing in the person of Jefferson). Yes, Adams too, who was anti-slavery, but you get the idea.

    So it’s important to remember that the very foundation of this country, as ensconced in the 3/5 rule and the EC, was based on prioritizing union over liberty. As we honor veterans today, let’s remember those how died in the bloodiest war in US history and the role the Electoral College system played in that tragedy.

    1. I am well aware of the horrible stain of slavery that hangs over the Constitution and the early republic, and this being Veteran’s Day I am always proud to have served in the Army that did so much to stamp it out.

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