Disproportionate Electoral Votes Per Capita

There are many, many issues with the Electoral College. The Electoral College’s Wikipedia page is filled with a laundry list of critiques, including how it makes the national popular vote irrelevant and disincentives voter turnout in non-swing states. While each of these critiques have merit, we’ll discuss a very basic one here: how the current distribution of electoral college votes is very much in conflict with the basic democratic ideal of “one man, one vote.”

As of July 2015, the 50 states and the District of Columbia had a combined population of 321 million people. If we divided the 538 electoral college votes among equally-sized groups, as the “one man, one vote” principle would dictate, then groups of roughly 600,000 people would each control one electoral vote. Instead, under the current system that we’ll use for the 2016 and 2020 elections, Wyoming’s 586,000 citizens control three electoral votes, while Texas, whose 27.5 million citizens could form 45 groups of 600,000 people, only controls 38 electoral votes.

The map above shows how the current electoral college system distorts the influence that states have on the U.S. presidential election. Citizens of populous states have less influence than they should, while residents of less populated states in New England, the Midwest, and the West have a disproportionately large influence on the election.

To make these differences even starker, let’s compare each state’s electoral votes per capita to those of Wyoming, the state with the largest number of votes relative to its population size.

vote_per_capita_relative_to_wyoming

43 states have fewer than three-fifths the electoral votes per capita of Wyoming. Texas, California, Florida, New York, and North Carolina all have less than 30% of Wyoming’s electoral votes per capita. In a very real sense, votes cast in these states count for much less than they should.

Stray Observations

  • I scraped the data for this post from Wikipedia. For full details, see this post’s Jupyter Notebook.
  • Another way of thinking about this: To get a similar dynamic in a national popular vote, we’d have to give Wyomingites three extra ballots.
  • Yes, there are more important problems with America’s democracy than this (e.g., gerrymandering and its insidious impacts). Yet it still shocks to learn that, in modern America, a Texan’s presidential vote counts for less than a third of a Wyomingite’s.
  • The way I’m interpreting “one man, one vote” here ignores a major issue: swing states. The reason that presidential candidates rarely campaign in California or Texas isn’t because those states have a low number of electoral votes per capita; it’s because the majority vote of those states is very clearly going to fall one way or the other. Given that, influencing a small number of votes isn’t likely to matter. That said, this analysis shows that if electoral votes were allocated equally, the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would receive even more campaign attention than they already do.
    • A related issue: The electoral college is “winner-take-all” in all but two states. Were in not for that, swing states wouldn’t receive as much disproportionate campaigning.
  • The main reason why Wyoming, Vermont, and other small states have a disproportionately large number of electoral votes is because each state is entitled to have their two senators and congressmen vote in the electoral college. Since each state must have at least one congressman, no state can have fewer than 3 electoral college votes, even though, if the votes were distributed proportionately, Wyoming would only have one vote.
  • Wyoming just keeps popping up as exceptional–first I found out that its state’s marijuana prices were decreasing more rapidly than any other state’s, and now this.
  • Header image of the U.S. Capitol c/o Nicolas Raymond