The Electoral College is Profoundly Undemocratic By Design

The Electoral College has come up quite a bit this week, as tends to happen during every Presidential election in America. As of right now it looks like Hillary Clinton is going to lose the Electoral College by a margin of 306 to 232. It also looks like she’s going to win the popular vote by well over half a million. How is this possible? Because of the Electoral College. Most people just kind of leave it at that.

I cannot. I must explain.

It’s simple math. A given state’s Electoral College votes are determined by that state’s congressional districts + that state’s Senate seats. The districts tie EC votes to state population but the Senate seat is a fixed value of 2.

And so but anyway, this gives Montana a disproportionately high Electoral College representation compared to California. “But,” you say, “How can that be? Montana gets 3 Electoral College votes and California gets 55. 55 is a much larger number than 3. You’re an idiot. Go back to Clown College.”

First of all, Clown College is really tough, you guys. I failed out of Clown College. Stop mocking my pain.

Second, if we go strictly by population as reflected in the number of seats in the House of Representatives, California should have 53 electors and Montana 1. In the current system Montana counts for 5% of the vote while if we take away the Senate electors Montana only counts for 2% of the vote.

California v Montana might be a bit of an extreme example, but if we take a more equitable situation it becomes clear that there’s a problem. South Dakota and Montana have a combined population of a bit under 2 million and 6 electoral votes between them. Nevada has a population of 2.8 million and 6 votes. Iowa has a population of 3.1 million and 6 votes. So if you live in Nevada or Iowa your vote is worth about 1/3 less than if you lived in South Dakota or Montana.

But it gets worse. Let’s go back to California.

California has a population of 38.8 million and 55 electoral votes. That means that every Californian (assuming every Californian is eligible to vote, which is obviously untrue, but I going to just assume that the ratio of ineligible voters is similar across the board to save myself a whole bunch of work) shares a single Electoral College vote with just under 705,000 other Californians.

South Dakota has a population of 853,000 and change and 3 electoral votes. That means every South Dakotan shares a single Electoral College vote with just under 285,000 other South Dakotans.

In short, if you live in South Dakota your vote is worth almost 2.5x as much as your vote if you lived in California.

So all of those people out in the red states complaining that they get less of a say are actually wrong. Statistically speaking they get a higher say because Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and both Dakotas are dramatically overrepresented in the final tally. Blue states get a little back with Vermont, New Hampshire, and DC. Texas is actually slightly worse than California at a 709,000:1 ratio.

Overall the blue states are more populous than the red states. In most cases it evens out, leaving somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 citizens to 1 Electoral College vote. But Donald Trump won 30 states to Hillary Clinton’s 20. So if we go back to the issue of 2 seats per Senate seat that means that Trump effectively got 20 free Electoral votes.[1]

At this point I could then mention that Trump has 290 Electoral votes and point to those 20 free votes while going, “Eh? Eh?” but Michigan’s votes aren’t in yet and it looks like that state is going to ultimately go red, meaning Trump will get 306 Electoral votes.

So instead I’ll just go back to that bit where a vote in South Dakota is worth 2.5x what a vote in California is worth. I will then point out that as of Sunday evening Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote by 650,000.

There’s a new question that I am sure you’re asking right now. I’m sure it’s occurred to you that if Electoral College votes are mostly handed out according to seats in the House of Representatives how are there such wildly varying ratios of people to seats?

One the one hand there really aren’t. South Dakota has one Representative and a population of about 800,000, which means that an individual South Dakotan has a claim on a roughly equal share of their single representative that a Californian has on their specific representative. But here’s where it gets interesting.

The House of Representatives should, technically, seat about 4500 people.

How do I arrive at this number? The Census of 1790 came back with a national population of 3.93 million people. The First Congress, which sat from 1789 to 1791, started with 59 Representatives and ended with 65 for reasons which currently mystify me. I’m sure I could find out but, quite frankly, I don’t care enough to look it up. It doesn’t matter for my purposes. The ratio of citizens to Representatives during the First Congress was between 61,000:1 and 66,000:1.

Right now the average ratio of citizens to Representatives is somewhere above 700,000:1. We currently have 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Ergo we would need to increase the number of seats ten-fold to get to the same ratio as the First Congress.

Why haven’t we done that? Because in 1929 we passed the Permanent Apportionment Act and capped the number of seats in the House of Representatives at 435. While this was, ultimately, a good decision, as a legislative body that counts members in the thousands is totally worthless, it has consequences. Every ten years we need to use census data to reapportion the House of Representatives and, therefore, the Electoral College. This can have an additional impact on relative levels of representation if there’s a large internal migration, as reapportionment lags behind population changes.

The problems with the Electoral College go beyond sheer numbers.

Presidential candidates have absolutely no incentive to talk to 20% of the populace. This is because that 20% of the population lives in California or Texas, our two most populous states. 66 million people live in those two states of the 320 million people in America. On Tuesday no one even pretended to go through the motions of counting the votes in either state before calling them. The polls closed and Texas went red. A couple hours later the polls closed and California went blue.

Oh, wait, did I say 20%? The number is probably more like 60%. Massachusetts and Illinois flipped blue immediately. Oklahoma flipped red. So did Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas.

The question here is one of ROI. We all know California is going to vote for the Democrat and Texas for the Republican. There’s no mystery there. Those states were on the board for their respective parties as soon as the Conventions ended. Hell, they were on the board as soon as the Conventions ended back in 2012. Candidates don’t spend much, if any, time in those states once the primaries are over.[2]

This is why you hear so much about “battleground states” and “swing states.” California doesn’t matter but Ohio does. So the candidates and their surrogates ignore California and spend months annoying old people trying to enjoy the early bird special at Freddie’s Really Good Eatin’ Joint in Bughump, Ohio. For six months we all have to pretend really hard that we care about the political theory of auto mechanics in Ohio, hairdressers in North Carolina, and meth lab maintenance engineers in Florida.

We then have to extrapolate from the problems faced by our televised hairdresser and figure out what the problems faced by every American are. But if she’s in North Carolina she will have different needs and concerns than people in other places.

For instance, California has no water. This seems like a problem to me. North Dakota is trying to build a pipeline that will funnel filth across our main aquifer and into the watersheds of the Missouri and Mississippi. These are not issues that the average North Carolinian is going to spend a lot of time thinking about. They’re definitely not the issues they’ll bring up to a presidential candidate running a staged town hall meeting.

So, yes, I am arguing that the current system actively incentivizes our presidential candidates to ignore our two most populous states and, in the process, ignore the very real needs of the electorate in those states. We could argue that this is great for the smaller states, as it means they get more attention. We could, but we’d be wrong there.

When is the last time you saw a serious presidential push in Bismarck, North Dakota? I’m going to say never. North Dakota is reliably red and doesn’t offer enough Electoral College votes. Yes, those votes are worth about twice as much as the votes in, say, Wisconsin, but Wisconsin itself is worth 3.33 North Dakotas. So the ROI in Wisconsin is better than the ROI in a North Dakota or Wyoming.

Finally, the Electoral College continues to push the idea that America is divided into Real America and Other America. We divide the states by color and then act like there’s some sort of weird, immutable wall between the red and the blue states. This ignores the fact that millions of people voted for Hillary Clinton in Texas and millions of people voted for Donald Trump in California.

Or, to put it another way, over 2.1 million people in Illinois voted for Donald Trump. That’s more people than live in South Dakota and Montana combined. None of those peoples’ votes count according to the Electoral College.

I’ve actually seen some people arguing that the purpose of the Electoral College is to make sure that rural and urban Americans have the same say. This is wrong and a definite post hoc argument. The goal of the Electoral College was to make sure that the wrong person didn’t gain control of the country. This was a definite concern of the framers of the Constitution. Don’t take my word for it, take James Madison’s.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

-James Madison, Federalist №10

Alexander Hamilton was the one who specifically took on the task of defending the Electoral College in the Federalist Papers.

It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.

-Alexander Hamilton, Federalist №68

The Electoral College, then, was put in place specifically to protect the American people from being overtaken by factions. It’s also important to realize that one of the aspects of “faction” that they were most worried about was political parties. This is why the calls for faithless electors to reject Donald Trump and vote for Hillary Clinton aren’t going to work. The party system has completely hijacked the Electoral College system.

This is where we get to the irony of the whole thing. The Electoral College was initially created as a mechanism to allow a panel of learned citizens to override the will of the people if the people descended into some sort of factional strife. Yet as soon as they had the chance the framers of the Constitution split apart and formed the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Parties and, as I’ve discussed before, John Adams and the Federalists passed a law that was basically designed to keep James Madison and Thomas Jefferson from becoming president.

Now the political factions are so entrenched that the political parties send their own delegates to the Electoral College. So that thing that was once put in place to make sure that the will of the people didn’t override the good of the people is simply propping up the very factionalism that the framers of the Constitution feared.

All in all, it’s time for the Electoral College to go. Its initial purpose was dubious at best and the spirit in which it was created was almost immediately subverted by the very men who created and defended it. Now, for the second time in a generation, the Electoral College has handed the Presidential contest over to the candidate chosen by less than half of the voters.

At this point I am closing in on 3,000 words for this article, which is a lot. I think I’ll come back later to visit the reasons why the Electoral College is an antiquated notion based on the same goddamn argument we keep having in America. It’s fascinating, informative, and requires a lot of words.


[1]At the same time I was figuring out the various ratios a friend of mine from high school was working on a similar question from a different angle. While I just worked back of the napkin with the assumption that all Electoral College votes are equal he actually went through state by state and tried to come up with an answer of how the EC would turn out if it handed the votes out proportionately.

The results there were interesting. He came up with a 264–264 tie. My proportional numbers came up with a 262–260 win for Hillary. What this shows is that those extra votes to count Senate seats really do matter. The difference in totals also seems to indicate that assigning electoral votes by state screws third party candidates slightly more than just assuming a giant pool of electoral votes.

[2]I can, and will, make the argument that this is actually great for the people in the states in question. I’ve only ever lived in Illinois and Texas, which have been reliably one-sided throughout this period of interminably long political seasons. It’s almost possible to forget that there’s a presidential election going on.

Illinois had an extra urgency on the state level this year. The state Comptroller election was a proxy war between Speaker Mike Madigan and Governor Bruce Rauner and millions of dollars were shoveled into the campaigns of Susana Mendoza and Leslie Munger.

There is something surreal to seeing commercials for a candidate for State Comptroller often enough that they sometimes pop up twice in the same commercial break. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen an ad for a candidate running for Comptroller before this year. I can also honestly say that I’ve never bothered to care what a Comptroller is, so that might have something to do with it.

And, really, I still don’t care. I voted for Mendoza but I like Leslie Munger as much as anyone can like their Comptroller. No matter what happens the state of Illinois is fucked. Yet, somehow, we just spent like 15 million dollars trying to decide who is going to write the checks to pay the bills that Illinois isn’t paying because Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan are having a dick measuring contest and won’t figure out a state budget. Meanwhile actual people are hurting. Private companies and charities that do business with Illinois aren’t getting paid. There was actually a decent possibility at the beginning of the year that the DMV was going to shut down because they weren’t paying the rent on their facilities.

But for some damned reason we decided to fight over who cuts the checks and not the people who decide whether or not to write them.

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