The Electoral College Must Go, Part One

The Electoral College is antidemocratic, helping some voters effectively cast two or three ballots and virtually erasing half of all American votes cast.

Back when they thought they were losing, Donald Trump and his supporters were fond of calling the 2016 US Presidential Election rigged. At rallies around the country, Trump advised conservative voters to keep an eye out for voter fraud: “Because you know what, that’s a big, big problem in this country and nobody wants to talk about it.” Voter fraud is incredible rare, of course, far too rare to have any meaningful impact on election outcomes.

Then came Election Night, the night cable news likes to brand “America Decides,” and America did decide. A large majority of Americans, more than voted for any candidate in history except Barack Obama, cast ballots for one candidate. And the other candidate won.

Because it turns out the system is rigged, tipping the scales in a way even widespread voter fraud never could; rigged so effectively that twice in the last 16 years it has denied American voters the President they favored. While Trump and his partisans fretted about voter impersonation, an antiquated system, created by racists who believed only wealthy white men should vote, meant that some voters effectively voted more than three times each.

America’s electoral system is rigged by the Electoral College, an antiquated and broken system that stopped serving its intended purpose a mere decade after its invention.

This essay is the first of a five-part series that will demonstrate why the Electoral College, which survived 240 years as a vestigial and generally harmless remnant of a bygone era, must be abolished. It will show how the Electoral College is on its face racist and antidemocratic, how it is incompatible with the reality of modern American life, how many arguments in its defense contradict history, and why abandoning the Electoral College will not harm the American electoral process in the manner many Americans fear.

The Electoral College gives some voters multiple ballots.

“One person, one vote.” It’s a simple phrase often associated with American democracy. So how does a candidate elected by at least 1.4 million more Americans than her opponent (a margin credible estimates predict will grow significantly) lose the Presidency?

Put simply, the Electoral College makes some votes worth more than others. Because of the formula by which electors are awarded to states, the ratio of actual, ballot-casting American voters to elector varies by as much as 2/3 from its average of around 422,000:1. The impact is that individual voters in small states, like Wyoming and Vermont, have much more influence over the Electoral College, and therefore the election, than those in more populated states.

In all the 50 states (and Washington DC) it’s the voters in Florida, with 29 electoral votes and 14.6 million eligible voters, who are most harmed by this system. A Florida voter can therefore be treated as a baseline by which to measure the impact of the Electoral College. Voters in Wyoming, with 3 electoral votes and only 431,000 eligible voters, make out the best in this system: Thanks to the Electoral College, a single voter in Wyoming is worth 3.5 Florida voters.

The national average is about 1.19 Florida Votes per voter — if you’re curious, that’s the exact value of a single vote in Louisiana. Voters in 21 states are worth less than the average, while those in 28 states (and DC) are worth more. Among the winners are voters in Vermont, also worth more than three Florida voters, while those in Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Delaware, and Washington DC are all worth between two and three Florida voters each.

Among the losers are voters in New York and California, as most would expect, but interestingly the bottom four also include Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina: All three perennial swing states, as well as a state newly considered a swing in 2016.

In fact, of the 13 states considered “purple states” in 2016 and in the coming years, voters in only four (New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa) exercise better than average influence on the Electoral College outcome. The other nine (the aforementioned plus Virginia, Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Michigan) all fall within the bottom fourteen — which suggests that swing states may be less a product of centrist populations, as conventional wisdom holds, than of a fluke in Electoral College math.

Voter Turnout Intensifies Electoral College Impact

The numbers presented so far are based on electoral votes and eligible voters, but the effect is further intensified by disparities in voter turnout; the number of actual votes shrinks, but electoral votes stay the same, further tipping the scales.

In the 2016 election, for example, those voters in Wyoming wound up being worth 3.83 Florida voters each, thanks to 60 percent turnout (Florida voters were still worth the least, by the way, even with 66% turnout taken into account). Voters in Hawaii, Utah, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma all picked up 1/5 or more of a Florida voter thanks to low turnout, while voters in Minnesota, where 74% of those eligible cast ballots, each voter lost 13% of a Florida vote in influence.

Astute readers might pick up on a disturbing trend: If swing states are those where individual voter influence on the Electoral College is lowest, then it follows that state legislatures can “shore up” a majority for their party by reducing the population of eligible voters. In other words, the Electoral College incentivizes voter suppression and disenfranchisement more than would a nationwide popular vote.

In fact, the two states where felon disenfranchisement has the greatest impact on electoral influence (Georgia and Texas) are among the most recent to “turn purple.” In both states, the number of voters disenfranchised by felony convictions was greater than the differential between Trump and Clinton; when one considers the disparity in racial makeup among felons, and the tendency of minority voters to support Democrats, disenfranchised felons alone likely could have swung both states for Clinton. Notably, the percentage of voters suppressed due to felony convictions was more than twice as high in states Trump won (1.6%) as in states Clinton won (0.7%).

The Electoral College does in fact have a disproportionate racial effect, which will be explored in greater depth on Thursday.

The Electoral College Makes a Quarter of All Voters Meaningless

Reading the above, one might assume the disparity in vote value created by the Electoral College is its greatest harm, and adjusting electoral apportionment to the states might be the solution. But even though Trump benefitted more from disproportionate impact of individual votes, it wasn’t enough to win the election. Converting all individual votes nationwide into “Florida votes,” Hillary still comes out ahead, albeit by a smaller margin.

How can this be? Because the greater evil of the Electoral College is not the disproportionate weight of votes alone. It’s that the Electoral College functions as a nationwide gerrymander, effectively erasing more than half of American voters by adding them onto, or burying them beneath, arbitrary regional majorities.

To illustrate this point, imagine for a moment that instead of 51 electoral bodies with discrete majority votes, we divided the nation into three: The East Coast, the West Coast (to include Alaska and Hawaii) and the Heartland. It’s easy to see the problem — with the majority of Republican voters condensed in a single district, the Democrats would have a lock on the Presidency without contest in every election.

Now consider that California and New York, undisputed Democratic powerhouses, were home to the third- and sixth-most votes for Donald Trump. A total of 6.4 million votes, fully ten percent of all votes for Trump, came from two states Trump never had a chance at winning. Meanwhile, 8.4 million votes for Clinton, more than 13 percent of her total, came from voters in Texas and Florida.

In fact, just more than half of the ballots cast by Americans for Hillary Clinton came from voters in states where she lost; the same is true of 33% of ballots cast for Donald Trump. Both candidates received about 29% of their votes in states traditionally considered a lock for the other side.

Add these lost votes to those rendered meaningless because they pile on to the majority in a state where that candidate was expected to win; this constitutes 14 percent of all votes for Donald Trump, and 16 percent of those for Hillary Clinton.

Adding these lost and meaningless votes together, 71.4 million American votes were essentially erased by the Electoral College — more than half of all votes cast in the 2016 election. Is it possible the Electoral College is suppressing voter turnout? Turnout is notably higher in swing states (64%) than non-swing states (57%). Perhaps ask the 35.5 million voters who cast ballots for a candidate they knew couldn’t possibly win their state — or better yet, ask the 70 million Americans who don’t live in swing states and didn’t bother to vote.

In the end, the most important figure is this: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by at least 1.4 million votes, 63 million to Trump’s 61.6 million. However, when that is adjusted for votes lost and rendered meaningless by the Electoral College, she loses — by more than 11 million votes.


Tomorrow: Part Two, The Electoral College Doesn’t Work as Intended.