Electoral College Reform by the Numbers

I recently started looking into electoral reform.  It originally started with me looking into campaign finance law, but I came across the National Popular Vote movement and have realized that this is as pressing an issue as campaign finance.  I had heard about the movement to reform the electoral college system in the past, but until now had never realized it’s vital importance to this country.

Almost everyone knows the basics of how current presidential elections work.  Each state has a certain number of electoral college delegates.  Whichever candidate receives the most votes in a state receives the full count of their electoral votes.  Once a candidate gets 270 electoral votes, it is game over, that person is now president.  What most people don’t know is how the number of electoral delegates are determined.  This is done according to  Article II Section 1 Claus 2 of the Constitution which states

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
Now the problem with this is that it is not representative.  While the number of house representatives per state are based (somewhat) by population, the number of senators are not.  The leads to a vastly disproportionate .  For example, lets look at the difference between the 3 largest and smallest states from 2008 (worldatlas.com).  The three smallest states and their number of electoral delegates per million are
  • Wyoming: Pop=0.532 mil, Delegates=3, Delegates per million=5.64
  • Vermont: Pop=0.621 mil, Delegates=3, Delegates per million=4.83
  • North Dakota: Pop=.641 mil, Delegates=3, Delegates per million=4.67
The three largest states on the other hand have
  • New York: Pop=19.49 mil, Delegates=31, Delegates per million=1.6
  • Texas: Pop=24,33 mil, Delegates=34, Delegates per million=1.39
  • California: Pop=36.75 mil, Delegates=55, Delegates per million=1.49

If this were the only flaw with the electoral college system, when it comes to presidential elections, a resident of Wyoming is worth almost 4 times of a resident of California.  This is a far from equal system.  However the system is even more broken than this.

The first past the post system, that exists in all but 2 states (Nebraska and Maine), means that votes in states with close elections are far more influential than those in states that are reliably partisan.   What really counts in your vote is not just how many electoral votes your state gets per capita, but how many electoral votes your state has per difference in the victory margin.

The logic behind this is that the closer the election is in a state, the more an individual vote counts, so it is necessary to create a metric to determine the impact of an individual vote in an election factoring this in. So instead of looking at the number of electoral delegates per capita, we should look at the number of electoral divided by the vote difference. Using the 2008 election data to analyze this we see an incredible disparity in voter impact by state we see;

  • Only ten states have significant increases in their national electoral voter impact (by 20% or more).  This represents 110 electoral delegates.
  • One state (New Hampshire) has a slight increase in it’s national electoral voter impact.  This represents 4 electoral delegates.
  • Six states have a slight decrease in their national electoral voter impact (under 20%).  This represents 46 electoral delegates.
  • A whopping thirty three states and the District of Columbia suffer a dramatic decrease in their voter impact.  This represents 378 electoral delegates.

This means that four hundred and twenty eight electoral delegates worth of states, seventy nine percent are hurt by the electoral college system.  Furthermore the difference in voter impact between the most helped (Missouri) and harmed (Maryland) states by the electoral college system in 2008 was over 188.  That means that one voter in Missouri and the same effect on the electoral outcome as one hundred and eighty eight people in Maryland.  This is not the exception.  There are over 20 states where the votes were worth less than 1% of that of one in Missouri, and there are five states whose votes are worth more than ten times that of Maryland.  When I started researching this, I was not expecting such a huge discrepancy in the impact of states on the electoral system, and am shocked at how flawed the system is.  This is level of voter disparity is simply unacceptable in a democracy.

Now, the good news is that the system is very close to being reformed.  Currently there is a mass movement across the nation by states legislatures working to move their states onto a national popular ballot.   These laws are set with trigger mechanisms so they do not kick in until 270 electoral delegates are represented by these states.  Currently there are 130 delegates worth of states have either enacted the change or have had the law pass both state house.  Another 69 delegates  worth of states have had a bill pass one of their state houses, and a smattering of states have such bills out of committee.

You can learn more at www.nationalpopularvote.com.  This is not a partisan issue, but one of fairness in our democracy.  I will be looking more into this soon (as soon my thesis dies down), including putting out a more detailed analysis that includes the 2000 and 2004 elections and some pretty graphs to show how extreme the problem is.

5 Responses to “Electoral College Reform by the Numbers”

  1. mvymvy says:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. It would no longer matter who won a state. Elections wouldn’t be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The current winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states ensures that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. The National Popular Vote bill does not try to abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without federal constitutional amendments.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota — 75%, New York — 79%, Washington — 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 30 state legislative chambers, in 20 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes — 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  2. mvymvy says:

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. In 2008, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their campaign events and ad money in just six states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states (with less than 7 electoral college votes) were not among them. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). In 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states; over 80% in nine states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states, and candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

    In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

  3. H-Bob says:

    535 electoral votes is not a Constitutional requirement — how much less skewed would the electoral college results be if the House were increased to 900 members so that there were a total of 1,000 electoral votes ?

  4. David Katz says:

    That would skew part of the calculus, but states with close elections contribute far more to the effective vote than the number of delegates

  5. daniel noe says:

    This is interesting. I hadn’t thought about the second part before (about “secure” states being ignored completely). Of course, campaigning directly to the citizenry was never part of the original plan. The federal government was from the beginning supposed to represent the states, not the people, so I suspect that the founders didn’t realize this would be a problem.

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