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.
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