by Jeff Strabone
The electoral college is one of those things that few people understand all that well, yet almost everyone can tell you why we’ve been unable to get rid of it: the small states have blocked efforts to amend the Constitution to abolish it because they believe that it amplifies their voting power. As we all know, holding on to power trumps principles in the real world. However, as I will show using simple arithmetic, the small states are wrong about where their true voting strength lies. In fact, the electoral college more often than not dilutes the voting power of most small states. I hope by this article to stand conventional wisdom about the electoral college on its head and, thereby, change the national conversation about it so that we can move on.
Let there be no mistake about one thing: we will never be able to abolish the electoral college by constitutional amendment unless and until it is shown to the small states that it is in their selfish interests to do so. How could it be in their selfish interests when every expert on the subject says otherwise? Read on and you’ll see. The numbers do not lie.
The U.S. Constitution as written in 1787 left to the state governments the selection of Senators and presidents. Since the Bill of Rights in 1791, nine of the 17 subsequent amendments have reformed election law or redefined eligibility to vote. The Seventeenth Amendment, for instance, provided for the popular election of U.S. Senators. Before it was ratified in 1913, U.S. Senators were never elected by the people; they were chosen by state governments. We are still waiting for a similar amendment to reform our presidential elections.
Direct election of the president was one possibility discussed at the 1787 Constitutional Convention but was tossed out because of the politics of slavery. The Records of the Federal Convention record James Madison’s opinion in its minutes:
The people at large was in his [Madison’s] opinion the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character. The people generally could only know & vote for some Citizen whose merits had rendered him an object of general attention & esteem. There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than9 the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.
Constitutional amendments have tended to come in waves: ten at once in 1791, three after the Civil War, six between 1913 and 1933, and four between 1961 and 1971. According to John Vile in his Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789–2002, there have been more than 850 proposals offered in Congress to amend or abolish the electoral college, the first as early as 1816. Amid the flurry of amendments in the 1960s, we came tantalizingly close to abolishing the electoral college in 1969–1970. An amendment (S.J.Res. 1 in the 91st Congress) won overwhelming passage in the House by a vote of 338 to 70 on September 18, 1969 and was supported by President Richard Nixon only to die by filibuster in the Senate in 1970. There were two failed cloture votes to end the filibuster. Both cloture votes had majority support, the last being 53 to 34 on September 29, 1970, but under the Senate’s rules at the time two-thirds was required to end a filibuster. (Today only 60 votes, not 67, are required to end debate.) Not surprisingly, many of the no votes came from Senators representing small states: Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, and others.
From a purely self-interested point of view, were the small-state Senators right to defend the electoral college? The question we need to answer is a comparative one: Would the small states have more sway over the electoral-college vote or over a nationwide popular vote? It turns out that many of the small states are highly partisan, i.e. they vote overwhelmingly for one candidate over another. This fact will prove important in answering our question.
Most people who have thought about these questions readily see that the electoral college favors the swing states: those where the outcome is usually close. Florida and New Mexico in 2000, for instance, were won with margins of victory of less than 1000 votes each. Since all but two states use a winner-take-all formula in awarding their electoral votes, swing states attract the most political attention and can sway the electoral college disproportionately despite having small or negligible impact on the nationwide popular vote.
Here is my argument in a nutshell: The states whose voting power is diminished in the electoral college are the highly partisan states, i.e. those that vote overwhelmingly for one candidate over another, regardless of size. In other words, the small, highly partisan states should want to abolish the electoral college, yet they are the ones who have most resisted its abolition.
Before we get deep into the numbers, let’s look at two states from the 2000 election: California and Utah.
• California had 54 seats (out of 538) in the electoral college in 2000. Al Gore’s margin of victory in California was 1,293,774 votes.
• Utah had 5 seats in the electoral college. George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Utah was 312,043 votes.
• In the electoral college, California’s voting power is overwhelming compared to Utah’s by a factor of 10.8 (54 compared to 5).
• But if California’s votes and Utah’s votes had contributed to a nationwide popular vote, California would not be 10.8 times as powerful as highly partisan Utah. Instead, California would only be 4.16 times as powerful as Utah in a nationwide popular total. To put it another way, Utah’s electoral-college power is less than one-tenth of California’s, but its power to sway a nationwide popular vote is about one-fourth of California’s.
• Conclusion: Utah’s voting power would have been greater in a nationwide popular vote in 2000 than it was in the electoral college.
Now let’s look at some numbers in table form. I have run these numbers for several recent elections and found similar results for all of them except one. For now let’s focus on the close election of 2000 since landslide elections are unlikely to produce electoral–popular splits.
These are the ten states with the highest margins of victory in the 2000 presidential election by percentage:
(Note: you can click on the tables to enlarge and clarify them in a separate window.
The Margin of Victory by Percentage means how much one candidate beat another by. For instance, Gore beat Bush in D.C. by 85.16% to 8.95%: a margin of victory of 76.20%.
As you can see, except for Massachusetts, all of these highly partisan states are small states, and all but three of them voted Republican in 2000.
Let’s shake up the numbers a different way now and look at the numerical margins of victory, i.e. not percentages but raw totals for each state. The states that cast the most votes in 2000 were California, New York, and Texas. The states with the highest numerical margins of victory were, not surprisingly, New York, Texas, and California. If we look for states that produced high numerical margins of victory without being big states, the results become very interesting.
• Utah, with the 34th-highest vote total and only 5 electoral votes, had the 10th-highest numerical margin of victory: 312,043.
• Oklahoma, with the 30th-highest vote total and 8 electoral votes, had the 12th-highest margin of victory: 270,061.
In 2000, there were seven states that placed fifteen or more spots higher in the margin-of-victory column than in number of votes cast. By that measure, these were the most highly partisan states for that year:
Now let’s do some mildly more complicated arithmetic and see if we can measure how much voting strength the small, highly partisan states lost due to the electoral college in 2000.
Again, California had 10.80 times as much voting power in the electoral college in 2000 as Utah had but only 4.15 times as much sway in terms of what it would contribute to a nationwide popular vote total. In a nationwide popular election, each state’s strength would be determined by its own margin of victory in the state: that is how much it would sway the national total by one way or the other. In the case of Oklahoma, according to the chart, California was 6.75 times more powerful in the electoral college but would have been only 4.79 times more powerful in a nationwide popular vote.
The column on the far right is a crude subtraction of one factor minus another for illustration purposes. Surprisingly, there were 24 states in 2000 that had bigger numbers in the ‘California Factor 1’ column than in the ‘California Factor 2’ column. In 2004, there were 27 such states. That means that, vis-à-vis California, 24 states in 2000 would have had more voting power in a popular vote than in the electoral college.
Here for comparison are the same data for 2004, using the states that fit the same criteria:
What these numbers suggest is that the small, highly partisan states would have had more voting power in a nationwide popular vote than they did in the electoral college. Many of the states in these tables are the very same ones that most of us expect to go on resisting abolishing the electoral college, as their Senators did in the 1970 filibuster. Yet, despite the conventional wisdom, they would benefit most from its abolition.
In close elections like 2000 and 2004, the small hyper-partisan states would have demonstrably more power in a nationwide popular vote than they do in the electoral college. That is the inescapable conclusion of the math. The 2008 election, however, is an outlier for a couple of possible reasons. For one thing, 2008 was, by recent standards, a landslide, the biggest since 1988. For another, Obama won a larger percentage of California’s votes (60.94%) than any candidate since Roosevelt in 1936, a huge landslide election. Obama also won states no Democrat had won in quite some time: Indiana (1964), North Carolina (1976), and Nevada (1996, barely).
If California continues voting as partisanly as it did in 1936 and 2008, then my model of comparing the small states to California won’t work. Acknowledging this limitation, there is still plenty to be said for the broader argument that small, highly partisan states are wrong to think they benefit from the electoral college. One is that in a landslide election, there is little chance of a popular–electoral split. Another is that partisan states of any size have more to gain in a nationwide popular vote than in the electoral college. A third is that when California is close, as it typically is, it has way more power in the electoral college than it would to sway a nationwide popular vote, as in 1968 when Nixon carried California’s 40 electoral votes despite beating Humphrey by only 43.42% to 42.72% nationwide. Republicans should be more concerned with demographic trends in Texas where the Latino population is growing. The day that a Democrat carries Texas with 51% of the vote—2016? 2020?—Republicans may finally wake up and realize that the electoral college is not their friend.
In the meanwhile, the small states need to reassess their calculations of where their true strength lies. Utah’s five electoral votes will never matter as much in the electoral college as its extreme partisan voting pattern would affect a nationwide popular vote. The same goes for the other states in the charts above. The sooner we can show them the math, the sooner we will be able to abolish the electoral college.
Click here for part two of this two-part series.