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The Electoral College is the Tail. The Senate is the Dog.

Pueblo Lith. Co., THE SILVER DOG WITH THE GOLDEN TAIL. Will the Tail Wag the Dog, or the Dog Wag the Tail? Pueblo: Nuckolls Packing Co., [1896?] Source: https://bostonraremaps.com/inventory/silver-dog-with-golden-tail/

As another presidential election comes and goes, calls for Electoral College reform, too, come and go. The Electoral College is an easy, popular, and worthy punching bag… to me anyway.

In recent weeks, I’ve engaged in vigorous discussions with friends about the Electoral College. I tried to make the case that it is 1) antiquated 2) undemocratic & unfair and 3) racist. I’ve also made the far simpler case: the electoral college distorts the will of voters.

Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t that, by definition, true? Isn’t that… really easy to prove? I was frustrated by the resistance I got to accepting that as fact. So, I pivoted:

“At least it’s not as undemocratic as the U.S. Senate!”

As most Americans ought to know, each state is delegated electors based on its count of seats in the House of Representatives (allocated based on population, with each house district representing roughly 700,000 people — kind of democratic!), and its count of seats in the Senate (two per state, regardless of population—democratic for states, but not for people!).

Because there are 100 electors apportioned based on the count of Senate seats, and 438 electors apportioned based on the count of House seats (Washington, D.C. gets three electors despite not having Senators, and only one, non-voting Congressperson), the electoral college outcome is more heavily weighted by votes that come from a proportional-by-population system (House). The winner-take-all nature of the way electoral votes are won on in the presidential election essentially erases the value this proportionality provides. This is another issue worthy of scrutiny, but not the target of this humble blog post.

The Electoral College is the tail.

Let’s compare the power our most and least populous states, California and Wyoming respectively, have in the electoral college.

  • California’s 55 electoral votes are determined by the voters among its population of 39,512,223, giving us a ratio of 718,404 people per electoral vote.
  • Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes are determined by the voters among its population of 578,759, giving us a ratio of 192,920 people per electoral vote.

Wyoming voters have 3.7 times the power Californians have in the Electoral College.

When you average out the entire US population per electoral vote and compare each state, California voters have 85% of the power they would under a perfectly proportional electoral college, and Wyoming voters today have 317% of the power they would have under the same system.

A 3.7x disparity is alarming enough to justify reform. However, my beef is less with the Electoral College than it is with the U.S. Senate.

The Senate is the dog.

The undemocratic nature of the Electoral College does its damage one day every four years (obviously ignoring how it shapes campaigns, candidates, priorities, messaging, policy agendas etc., which we really shouldn’t do...). The undemocratic nature of the Senate, however, is at work every day of every year, or 1459 days every four years.

While the House of Representatives was designed to be proportional, the Senate was designed to be “equal”:

“The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion. If indeed it be right, that among a people thoroughly incorporated into one nation, every district ought to have a PROPORTIONAL share in the government, and that among independent and sovereign States, bound together by a simple league, the parties, however unequal in size, ought to have an EQUAL share in the common councils, it does not appear to be without some reason that in a compound republic, partaking both of the national and federal character, the government ought to be founded on a mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation.”

— James Madison, The Federalist Papers №62

The distortion of the public will generated by that design, however, has only grown over time as populations boom unevenly across our states over the last century.

In a country with 327 million residents (half of whom live in just 9 states), each U.S. Senator would represent 3.275 million residents in a perfectly proportional system. To show how far we’re off from that ratio, let’s look at California and Wyoming again.

  • California’s ratio of population (39.5M) to U.S. Senator (2) is over 19.7 million.
  • Wyoming’s is 289,380.

Under a perfectly proportional system…

  • Californians are 12.06% of the U.S. population. They ‘should’ have 12.06 Senators representing them instead of 2.
  • Californians today have 17% of the Senate representation they ‘should’ have in a perfectly proportional system.
  • Wyomingites are 0.18% of the U.S. population. They ‘should’ have 0.18 Senators representing them instead of 2.
  • Wyomingites today have over 1,100% (11x) of the representation they ‘should’ have in a perfectly proportional system.

Put it together: Wyoming voters today have over 68x times the power Californians have in the U.S. Senate.

In terms of disparities and warping the public will, the Electoral College is the tail, the Senate is the dog.

The dog wags the tail.

So, what about the other states?

I ran this same analysis (comparing their power disparities under the current Electoral College and Senate arrangement versus a more proportional one, and published the data on Airtable & Qri Cloud.

Here’s how to interpret the key columns:

  • Any state with a percentage below/above 100% in the “Percent of EC Power they Should Have” column is under/over-represented in the Electoral College.
  • Any state with a percentage below/above 100% in the “Percent of the Senate Power they Should have” column is under/over-represented in the U.S. Senate.

What about Vermont v. Texas?

Successfully arguing for Electoral College and Senate reform hits an obvious wall when you fail to make the case bi-partisan. So, let’s do a quick analysis comparing Vermont (blue state, 49th in population) and Texas (red state, 2nd in population):

The California vs. Wyoming case is quite comparable to Texas v. Vermont

  • Texas voters have 80% of the power in the Electoral College they ‘should’ have and 23% of the power in the Senate they ‘should’ have.
  • Vermont voters have 294% of the power in the Electoral College they ‘should’ have and 1,050% of the power in the Senate they ‘should’ have.

Vermonters have 3.7x the voting power in the Electoral College as Texans do, but 46.5x the voting power in the Senate!

If you’d like to get your hands dirty with the data I used, I strongly recommend going to the version on Qri Cloud, because there you’ll also have access to column descriptions, useful metadata, readme info, and structure/schema data, and any new versions, should I choose to update it (all of which ride together when you pull the dataset!).

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Rico Gardaphe

Rico Gardaphe

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Head of Business Development for Qri — free and open source dataset versioning software. Former strategy consultant and Obama White House staffer.