When it became clear that President Donald Trump would lose the popular vote in November’s election, questions again arose about the Electoral College, and whether it is fair.
A presidential candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College vote, and therefore the presidency. That’s what happened with Trump in 2016.
The U.S. presidential election is really the combination of 51 separate elections – one in each state and in the District of Columbia. The winner of the popular vote in each state gets a certain number of electoral votes, and the candidate who collects at least 270 wins the presidency.
Smaller states have fewer electoral votes than more populous ones. In fact, some critics have complained that the Electoral College system encourages candidates to ignore voters in smaller states like Oklahoma and Mississippi, instead focusing on campaigning in big states like California and New York, which have lots of electoral votes. But those states also have lots of voters – so a national popular vote system might also encourage candidates to pay more attention to places where many voters are concentrated.
I’m a professor of political science who has analyzed elections in American politics. I compared the number of Electoral College votes each state has with various characteristics of the states – how many people live there, how many of its residents are eligible to vote and how many people actually cast ballots in 2020.
My analysis finds that voters in small states have more Electoral College votes per capita than larger, more diverse states, using several different measures – and therefore more power to choose a president than they would have in a national popular election.
Ignoring smaller states?
In 2016, Republican Phil Bryant, who was then the governor of Mississippi, complained that states did not have equal power to pick the president. He noted that larger states, which he described as more “liberal,” had more electoral votes than smaller, “conservative” ones like his own.
Bryant, who holds a master’s degree in political science, reportedly said in a 2016 radio interview: “The election is rigged… . As it has been designed, as we look at the states where the more liberal voting populations may be in the cities, in New York and California and some of the other areas – all you have to do is win those particularly larger states and you can forget about flyover country.”
Even as far back as 1970, Republican Sen. Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma complained, “As long as a voter in California is a means by which a candidate for president may hope to win 40 electoral votes and when a voter in the state of New York is a means whereby a candidate can win 43 electoral votes, those votes are going to be more important to the candidate than the votes of citizens in a state like Oklahoma where the candidate can hope to gain only eight electoral votes or, perhaps under the new census, only seven votes.”
But if there were a national popular vote instead of the Electoral College, similar criticisms could hold true: Candidates might still find it efficient, in terms of time and money, to focus their campaign efforts on places with larger populations.
Losing the popular vote, and still winning?
The idea that someone could lose the popular vote and still win the presidency has its own critics. In 2016, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and author of “Republic, Lost: Version 2.0” and a 2016 Democratic primary presidential candidate, railed against the idea that Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton that way.
“[T]he result violated what has become one of the most important principles governing our democracy – one person, one vote,” Lessig wrote. “In both cases, the votes of some weighed much more heavily than the votes of others. Today, the vote of a citizen in Wyoming is four times as powerful as the vote of a citizen in Michigan. The vote of a citizen in Vermont is three times as powerful as a vote in Missouri. This denies Americans the fundamental value of a representative democracy — equal citizenship.”
The source for Lessig’s exact figures is unclear, but his larger point is accurate. In every measure – based on population, eligible voters and actual voters – voters in Wyoming, the nation’s least populous state, have the most influence over the Electoral College. And in every measure, voters in one of the country’s three most populous states – California, Texas and Florida – have the least Electoral College power.
Studying the Electoral College
States are assigned electoral votes based in part on their total populations. In addition to two electors for every state, corresponding to the two U.S. senators, they get one elector for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The number of House seats a state gets is calculated every 10 years based on how many people live there.
The seat allocation was most recently calculated after the 2010 census, and will be calculated again after the results of the 2020 census are released. In that determination, voters in less populous states get an advantage, because no state can have fewer than three electoral votes, no matter how few people live there. The same is true for the District of Columbia, which is also guaranteed at least three electoral votes.
Based on the 2019 population estimates, Wyoming has three electoral votes representing 578,759 residents – or 5.18 electoral votes per million residents. By contrast, Texas has 1.31 electoral votes per million residents. Each Wyoming voter has roughly four times more influence over its state’s electoral voters than each Texas voter.
When looking at how many people in each state are eligible to vote, Wyoming’s voters have 6.59 electoral votes per million eligible voters. That’s also about four times as much influence as voters in Florida, who have 1.86 electoral votes per million eligible voters – a statistic that includes people over age 18 but excludes noncitizens and, in many states, people who have been convicted of a felony.
But the amount of influence any given voter has on the outcome of the election is different from those measures: It depends on how many people actually vote in each state.
When it comes to those who voted, voters in small states still have the advantage over their larger counterparts. In the 2020 presidential election, 278,503 Wyoming voters cast ballots that determined the allocation of three Electoral College votes. That’s 10.8 electoral votes per million voters. Florida, at the other end of the spectrum, saw 11,144,855 voters determining 29 electoral votes – giving each Florida voter one-fourth the power of each Wyoming voter.
It’s not just Wyoming voters who have disproportionate influence over the Electoral College. They are joined by voters in the District of Columbia and 11 other states with fewer than five Electoral College votes. Voters in more populous states, like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Georgia, have much less influence, along with those in California, Texas and New York.
A system like this existed in Georgia up until the middle of the 20th century. Called the “unit county system,” it gave voters in lightly populated counties more influence over who was elected governor than voters in more populous counties had. But in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that system, ruling that it violated the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote.”
Could the same thing happen to the Electoral College?