The National Popular Vote vs the Electoral College

In the popular vote totals, each vote has equal weight. One person’s vote counts the same as any other person’s vote.

This isn’t true in the Electoral College, something we all know. In the Electoral College, some votes count more than others.

So now we have a discussion about the Electoral College choosing Trump as the president-elect even though Clinton won the popular vote. It would help to understand HOW this works. Understanding HOW will in turn help to understand WHOSE VOTE COUNTS MORE and WHOSE VOTE COUNTS LESS.

If we understand the demographics of these different groups, we can begin to understand what the real problems are with our current system of electing a president.

How the Electoral College Works

My focus is on the way votes get counted. The fact that electors are chosen to cast the actual Electoral College votes instead of using the vote of people is a different topic. It is a worthwhile topic for discussion, but a separate issue from my focus here. I want to focus on the Electoral College’s variance from the “one person, one vote” principle.

Each state, with exceptions involving only 2 of the 538 total electoral votes nationally, awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins that state’s popular vote. The electoral vote for each state is equal to the total number of Representatives and Senators the state sends to Congress. This number, in turn, is based on the Great Compromise at the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787.

When the founders were in the process of designing our system of government, they were naturally concerned with balancing the interests of the individual states. They knew they needed to create a document which would be acceptable to each state. Specifically, they were concerned that states with large populations would have common interests which would not be shared with states with small populations. This became the large state vs small state debate.

The writers of the Constitution didn’t want a system in which the large states would be able to gang up and impose their interests on the small states. At the same time, they wanted to make sure that the people would be represented, so that the small states couldn’t impose their interests on everybody. The result of this debate is now known as the Great Compromise. The result is a bicameral legislature. In the Senate, each state has equal representation (an advantage to small states). In the House of Representatives, representation is based on population (an advantage to large states).

Combining each state’s total of Senators and Representatives, there is a built-in advantage for small states when compared to “one person, one vote”. This is how the Electoral College allocates votes to each state.

Whose Vote Counts More and Whose Vote Counts Less

Now that we know how electoral votes are allocated, let’s take a look at what is means in today’s political reality.

We are used to branding each state with a label: red, blue, or purple. These labels are useful to this discussion, but only if we define them in a certain way. For red states and blue states, we should include only the deep red and the deep blue. These are states which essentially have one party rule. These are the states which will vote for a certain party regardless of who the candidates are. All other states are purple states, regardless of how they voted in the previous election cycle.

Deep red and deep blue states are not in play. Their electoral votes are secure for a specific party regardless of the national popular vote.

Take a look at the electoral map. For the most part, red states are states from the old Confederacy, plus sparsely populated states with few non-white voters. Blue states tend to have higher total populations and more minorities than red states. This kind of party alignment has been in place since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s (another topic, but one relevant to this one if you care to research it). Red states tend to be small states; blue states tend to be large states.

I already showed how the electoral system has a built-in advantage for small states over large states. This gives an advantage to Republican voters on a per-person basis. When you add in the demographics of these states, you can see a large advantage for white voters over minority voters (on a per-person basis).

As an example, compare the highest-populated state (California) with the lowest-populated state (Wyoming). California, with a large minority population, has about 711,724 residents for each electoral vote. Wyoming, with very little diversity, only has about 195,369 residents for each electoral vote. It takes almost 4 people in California to equal the Electoral College voting power of one person in Wyoming. Given the demographics, this highly favors the interests of white voters. This is the extreme example (#1 vs #50 in terms of population), but the same concept applies across all states - due to the advantage for white voters built into the system.*
*(I used the estimated state populations listed on Wikipedia for these calculations)

Purple states are in play. Take a closer look at voting patterns in purple states. Sparsely-populated areas with little diversity are typically red, while large population centers with large minority populations are typically blue. The relative numbers in the demographics between city, suburbs, and rural areas in a purple state goes a long way toward determining which way that state’s electoral votes will go.

This is today’s political reality. A system which provides whites with more voting power per person is a large part of this reality. Disenfranchised voters are a large part of this reality. Not only are minority votes under-counted on a per person basis, but also people living in deep red and deep blue states have no effective vote. Another part of this reality: Candidates spending all of their time in purple states, instead of taking their message to wherever the people are located.

These realities favor changing to a system in which the winner of the national popular vote is declared the winner of a presidential election. The founding fathers were understandably concerned about the interests of large states overwhelming the interests of small states. Today’s reality, however, seems to be that the important differences in interests lie at the county level more than the state level, and at the individual voter level more than anything. One person, one vote makes more sense in today’s world.

Jerry Wyant