With this year’s divisive election leading to a divided result – with Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote and Donald Trump winning the presidency – calls are rising once again to scrap the electoral college system.
Some of this is Monday-morning griping; had the results been reversed, it would surely be Trump’s supporters suddenly aghast at the way we’ve elected presidents since the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804. But it is undeniable that the electoral college system is a departure from the traditional one-person-one-vote philosophy that typically guides democracies.
How big a departure? To quantify that, we measured the relative value of each state’s voters in this election by calculating how many votes for the winning candidate were required to procure each electoral college delegate.
Three factors affect the weight of a particular state’s voters:
Voters in small states have an advantage – because delegates are assigned based on the number of each state’s representatives and senators in Congress. Representatives are apportioned based on population, but every state has two senators regardless of population. So, for a tiny state with a single representative, adding two more delegates triples the number of electoral college votes for that state – thereby tripling the potential power of its voters. But in a huge state such as California, with 53 representatives, the addition of two more delegates increases its electoral college power by only a few percent.
Voters in states with low turnout relative to population have an advantage – because the fewer votes cast, the more weight each individual vote carries. The electoral college delegates are assigned based on a state’s total population. So in states with low voter turnout – either because of below-average voter eligibility or below-average voter registration or simply because residents didn’t go to the polls – those who do cast ballots carry more weight than voters in high-turnout states.
Voters in states where the margin of victory was narrow have an advantage – because the victor in each state (with a couple exceptions), wins 100 percent of that state’s delegates whether that candidate swept 80 percent of vote or won with a tiny plurality. So the closer the race, the smaller the number of votes for the winner. And the smaller the number of votes, the more weight each vote carries.
Those factors can move in different directions and occasionally cancel each other out. In Texas, for example, the state’s large population weakened the value of each vote. But the state also had low voter turnout, increasing the value of each vote. The result: one vote for Trump in Texas carried almost exactly the same weight as the average of all winning votes across the country. And California, despite being the most-populous state and producing a larger than average margin of victory for Clinton – factors that pushed down the weight of each vote – had such low voter turnout that each individual vote for Clinton ended up carrying 22 percent more weight than the national average.
But while there is variability among the factors, a state’s small size is clearly the most significant in boosting a state’s relative power. The three states whose voters carried the most weight in the electoral college all have a single representative, but three delegates: Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont. Alaska also had a smaller than average margin of victory for Trump and a smaller than average voter turnout, making its voters the most heavily weighted in the election, with each vote for Trump counting for 2.8 times the electoral-college power of the average vote nationwide.
At the other end of the scale, Clinton voters in Massachusetts – with high voter turnout, a higher-than-average vote spread and a slightly above-average population – carried the least electoral-college weight, with each vote counting for about 70 percent of the average power of votes nationwide.
Put another way, in Alaska, one electoral college delegate was assigned for roughly every 43,500 votes for the winner, while in Massachusetts, it took about 178,600 winning votes to produce one delegate.
The map above shows the relative weight of votes for the winning candidate in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States shaded progressively greener had higher weights; states shaded progressively redder had lower weights. Click on a state to see its winner and the relative value of its votes for the winner. There’s a clear geographic split, with most Western states being over-weighted and most Eastern states under-weighted, with the exception of small New England states. That is primarily a reflection of most of the Great Plains states.
It was no surprise that Hillary Clinton won Connecticut’s seven electoral votes Tuesday, but looking under the hood of that easy victory shows a clear shift to the right for most – but not all – of the state.
Here’s a town-by-town breakdown of Tuesday’s vote for president, with greater support for Clinton shown in progressively bluer shades, and greater support for Donald Trump shaded progressively in red. Click on a town to see its vote totals. (Towns in yellow were late reporting complete results.)
As expected, the major cities were solidly blue, as were the ring towns around Hartford, most shoreline towns and the northwest corner. And there was no shock in Trump’s edge in a swath of towns from Trumbull in the south to Hartland in the north.
But there were surprises Tuesday. Trump’s dominance in much of Eastern Connecticut was a dramatic improvement over Mitt Romney’s showing four years ago. And on the flip side, Clinton fared much better than Barack Obama in Fairfield County, and also had stronger support in the Farmington Valley. It may be that while both Romney and Trump are extremely wealthy, Trump’s populism resonated in rural towns far better than Romney’s silver-spoon persona. And Clinton’s friendliness toward Wall Street could explain her strong showing in the Gold Coast.
To gauge how broad Trump’s support was in small towns this time around, here’s a clickable map showing the Obama-Romney race in 2012, where nearly the entire eastern half of the state either favored Obama or gave Romney only a slim margin.
To fully appreciate the depth of the swing, this map shows the vote shift between the two elections, with redder towns showing a stronger shift to the Republican candidate and blue towns showing a strong shift Democratic. In many eastern towns, Trump had a double-digit percentage advance over Romney’s 2012 support. But in Fairfield County, Clinton enjoyed an even bigger swing in votes, helping her to win a majority in all the southern Fairfield County towns that have reported.
The New York Times has a widely shared piece this morning, disclosing that Donald Trump reported a nearly $916 million loss on his income taxes in 1995 – a financial drubbing that The Times said could have allowed him to wipe out any income-tax liability for 18 years.
Partisans on both sides are engaged in typical partisan hysteria, and some are wondering on social media: Is this sort of reporting legal?
The story included copies of Trump’s state tax returns from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Most people in my profession have salivated over the thought of gaining access to tax filings for those whose background we’re investigating. But personal tax returns naturally are confidential, and the Department of Revenue Services would promptly laugh at us if we asked to see them.
So was The Times on shaky legal ground in publishing Trump’s Connecticut Non-Resident Tax Return?
Laws are often open to interpretation, but the answer is probably not. Yes there are state laws that provide penalties for disclosing tax information; no, those laws probably don’t apply to The Times.
Section 12-15 of the Connecticut General Statutes makes it illegal to inspect or disclose “return information” – including the sort of information The Times reported. But the law’s prohibition is limited to current and former state employees and to others who have authorized access to the returns (such as contractors hired to help process or store returns). Those with unauthorized access – including The Times – aren’t covered by the law. (Connecticut’s law is substantially similar to the federal law on tax-return privacy.)
So if a state official provided the document, that individual may have broken 12-15, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But that law doesn’t appear to apply to The Times or its reporters. (That said, it seems unlikely the document came directly from the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services; The Times indicates that all three tax returns arrived together in an anonymous package on Sept. 23.)
But if an anonymous tipster broke the law in leaking the records, is The Times still on the hook for publishing them? Again, probably not – although lawyers for Trump have threatened legal action. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case in which a Pennsylvania radio station broadcast a recording of an illegally intercepted cell phone call between union officials during a contentious contract negotiation. The union officials sued, but the court sided with the radio station, ruling that journalists cannot be held liable for publishing illegally obtained information related to legitimate matters of public concern, so long as the journalists did not participate in illegally obtaining the information.
“Privacy of communication is an important interest. However, in this suit, privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance,” the court wrote in Bartnicki v. Vopper. “A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”
The heated debate over the propriety and relevance of The Times’ story will likely go on. Just perhaps not in a court of law.
The policemen gunned down in Dallas Thursday night join a long and sad list of officers intentionally slain year-after-year in the line of duty. From 1997 to 2015, according to FBI statistics, 1,005 members of U.S. law enforcement members were “feloniously killed” – and a surprisingly large number died in ambushes.
Over the last two decades, officer murders peaked in 2011, when 72 were slain. Preliminary numbers for 2015 are far lower: 41.
Those numbers are a fraction of all law-enforcement deaths. Intentional killings account for about a third of the officers who die in the line of duty, with many more dying in car accidents and from job-related illnesses. The overall numbers have dropped dramatically from spikes in violence against police in the 1920s and 30s, and the 1970s.
While deadly encounters during traffic stop may seem to be the most common scenario in which officers are killed, they account for fewer than one in five slayings. Since 1997, more officers were killed in ambushes – including unprovoked attacks and cases in which officers were lured into danger – than during traffic stops. About one in 13 killings occurred while police were responding to a domestic dispute.
Firearms were used in 92 percent of all murders of police since 1997. Handguns were used most often, although rifles and shotguns were used far more often with cop killings than with homicides in the general population. In recent years, about 7 percent of firearm homicides were committed with rifles or shotguns. Among killings of police, long guns were used more than four times as often.
Legislators are preparing to vote on a nearly $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year – a revised spending plan that trims more than $800 million from what legislators approved 11 months ago. Here’s a breakdown of the proposed budget by department and by line-item description. Hovering over the bubbles will display each department’s total budget. Clicking on a department will show line-item spending for that agency.
Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.
If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.
Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”
Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)
But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.
That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)
So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.
The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”
While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.
Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?