A New Way to Think About Electoral Inequality
In this article I examine various ways of measuring inequality in the electoral college and design a new system to better represent that inequality.
The front of the Supreme Court building has engraved on its portico "Equal Justice Under Law." This is a perfectly apt motto for the Court, although it is a bit redundant. Justice necessarily entails equality. Our word "just" is itself derived from the Latin justus, meaning "fair" or "equitable." Without equality, any claim of justice falls flat.
Looking at it that way, it's no question that the electoral college is unjust. No one can claim that it treats voters from different states equally with all the mathematical tomfoolery it performs on vote tallies before yielding the final result. But how can we conceptualize and measure this inequality? A host of methods have been offered, but they lead to contradictory results.
The Existing Models and Their Flaws
It has been noted, for instance, that voters in Wyoming have four times as much influence as voters in California because Wyoming has fewer citizens for every electoral vote. In essence, the three-vote minimum takes influence away from the big states and redistributes it to the small states. So ostensibly, small states are the beneficiaries of the electoral college.
Well, not so fast. That model works if you compare states at either end of the population spectrum, but it breaks down if you compare one small state to another small state, and so on. The electoral college even treats states with roughly the same size unequally. This is because the method for determining votes (the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives) is a bit rough. It does not create a smooth gradient from the most powerful states at the bottom to the least at the top. See Idaho and Rhode Island. Although Idaho has nearly 60% more people than Rhode Island, each gets four electoral college votes. Every 408,500 Idahoans translate to one electoral vote, versus only 263,750 Rhode Islanders. (You can see more of these differences on the chart below.) So perhaps, big or small, the way to game the electoral college is to land in that Rhode Island sweet spot where you have just enough people to get another electoral vote, but no more.
This second model is more meaningful, but it still doesn't help us as much as it could. If it were very meaningful, we would expect candidates to focus their time and resources in states like Rhode Island, where they could get the biggest bang for their buck, as it were. But in 2016 Clinton and Trump held a combined zero rallies in Rhode Island. In fact, all of the states we've examined (California, Wyoming, Rhode Island, and Idaho) are completely ignored by Presidential candidates. A Democratic voter in Wyoming is still disadvantaged, even though they live in a small state. Clearly the electoral-vote-per-capita models don't tell the whole story. There's one other element of electoral inequality.
We all know the states that candidates really care about: Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, and so on. They're the swing states. Candidates can win big by only convincing a small slice of the population because the winner wins all of the electoral votes, regardless of the margin of victory. But at the same time, winning Pennsylvania by 1,000 votes is not the same as winning Wisconsin by 1,000 votes. Pennsylvania has twice as many electoral votes, so the victory there is twice as important.
We've got two competing views of electoral inequality: one that tells us Wyoming and Rhode Island are privileged because they get more votes per person, and one that says Florida and Ohio are privileged because they have narrow margins of victory. The best way to conceptualize electoral inequality would then be to combine these two models into one. I did so, creating a model I call the Voter Importance Index. It measures how many meaningful voters a state has for every electoral vote.
A New Model
To calculate voter importance, I first took the popular vote in every state for the 2016 election and subtracted the loser's vote tally from the winner's, giving me the margin of victory in every state. These votes, ranging from 2,736 in New Hampshire to 4.3 million in California, are the votes that determine the electoral college. Flip them, and the whole state flips. I then divided the number of electoral votes in each state by these margins of victory, yielding the number of electoral college votes for every marginal (read: effective) vote. The result is a number I call the Voter Importance Score. It represents the likelihood that any given voter in a particular state will determine electoral votes, adjusted for how many electoral votes represent that person. The numbers are very small, so I multiplied them all by 100,000. (See all the data here.)
Another way to approach this data is to view it as the number of voters over the victory mark per every elector. Smaller numbers are better because they mean a state is easier to flip and because there are more electoral votes per person. We like to pride ourselves on the principle of "one person, one vote," but this has never really been the case. In reality, it's 669 Michiganders, one vote. 15,644 Alaskans, one vote. 59,882 New Yorkers, one vote.
This model, combining the number of electors per person with the closeness of races shows that the states hit hardest by the electoral college are big states that lean strongly one way or the other. But more importantly, it shows just how unfair the electoral college can be when states fall into a Goldilocks (or anti-Goldilocks) zone. New Hampshire is a perennial favorite. Very small and always close, it is guaranteed a much better position than the other states. In 2016, New Hampshire voters were 112 times more important than voters in the anti-New Hampshire, enormous and solidly blue California.
An interesting case arises when we look at the closest race in modern history: Florida in 2000. With 25 electors and a victory margin of only 537 votes, Florida voters were astronomically more important than other voters. Forget California being four times less than Wyoming. Florida voters in 2000 were more than 4,000 times more important than DC voters in 2016.
Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from the Voter Importance Index is that the electoral college does not only hurt Democrats, as it is often portrayed. Although the electoral college has elected a losing Republican twice in the past three presidencies, this appears to be a coincidence. Indeed, of the ten least important states, five are red and five are blue. Of the second most important quintile, three are red, three are blue, and four are swing states. Fairness in voting is not a partisan issue. Everyone should support justice, and justice abhors a system that institutionalizes such inequality as the electoral college.
Map credit Mark Newman, Creative Commons