How much does your vote actually matter? This year’s presidential election was an interesting affair to say the least. The votes haven’t been completely counted as of this writing but the winner of the popular vote and the electoral are likely not be the same candidate.
The popular vote winner / electoral vote winner discrepancy isn’t unprecedented. In 2000 George Bush won the presidency despite Al Gore winning the popular vote. We’d have to back to the 1800s to find the other two instances, Benjamin Harrison’s electoral victory over Grover Cleveland’s popular victory and Samuel Tilden beating Ruther B Hayes, who was the winner of the popular vote. The latter was overturned in the Compromise of 1877, promising the removal of federal troops from the South in an attempt to satisfy the popular sentiment in exchange for a Hayes presidency.
Hillary Clinton will likely become the 4th presidential candidate in American history to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote. This has brought the role of the electoral college into question in many circles. What role does the electoral college play?
In a representative democracy like the United States, people elect officials to represent their interests. The 538 electors that make up the electoral college include the 435 representatives of the house, the 100 senators representing the states, and 3 electors representing the people living in Washington D.C. Typically, the electors will vote in accordance with the popular vote but it’s interesting to note they are not legally bound to do so. The college was a system that was originally implemented to assure that states with small populations would have a fair say in the elections. Article II, section 1, clause 2 of the constitution is the origin of the electoral college’s use in elections.
Let’s look at how the electoral college represents the population.
Higher population, more electoral votes. Electoral college delegate redistribution to reflect changing populations is left up to the state. Let’s take a look at population and see how it compares.
At a glance everything looks fine. Colors are similar and correspond between the two maps. Let’s compare electoral votes and population mathematically. By dividing the population by the electoral votes we can see how much of a state’s population is represented by 1 electoral vote.
Lighter colored states have lower populations per electoral vote meaning someone’s personal vote is worth more in a light-colored state than a dark-colored state. For example, voting in Wyoming, the lowest population per electoral vote, will give your vote 3.62 times more electoral weight than a vote in California, the highest population per electoral vote. This seems strange when first considering the differential. Let’s take a look at voter turnout in the 2016 election.
90 million voters out of the estimated 231 million that are eligible to vote didn’t vote in the 2016 general election. According to statisticbrain.com 44.4% of people didn’t exercise their right to vote, one of the most critical rights in a democratic society. In the above map we can see some interesting correlation. California’s turnout is the lowest after Hawaii, is it fair that California would receive population-based electoral votes considering the amount of voter apathy? Should Florida receive the same amount of electoral votes as New York despite having a notable higher voter turnout? Should voter turnout even matter at all when considering the allocation electoral votes? Does it play a role in reality?
Let’s adjust the electoral vote per population by the percent of voter turnout.
Nothing significantly different. The Northwest voting block is relatively stronger. The Rust Belt as a region sees an increase in voting influence per person on the electoral college. The California-Wisconsin comparison made earlier has seen its ratio drop to 2.71 compared to 3.62 meaning a vote in Wyoming still carries 2.71 times the electoral influence as a vote in California.
Let’s see what the electoral college would look like if it were adjusted to reflect these numbers. If we take the total voting population of each state and redistributed the 538 electors among them, excluding D.C.
Of course in reality the number of electors has to be a whole number. You can’t have .5 of an elector. A few things to consider: Florida’s electoral power has significantly increased. California’s has decreased. The Great Plains states have had their electoral influence lowered. The Rust Belt has seen an increase across the board. Of course in this scenario, changing the number of electoral votes based on voter turnout might encourage and discourage people to show up as their state’s electoral influence waxes or wanes.
Perhaps this constant evolution of the electoral college would be a viable solution. As a representative democracy, citizens should expect accurate representation every time they fill out a ballot. Maybe this kind of feedback on voter turnout is excessive and people may feel punished by the apathy of voters they may share a state with. It’s also important to consider that, in reality, each state has 2 senators and at least 1 representative of the house, making the lowest possible electoral votes for a state 3.
If the election were held with this electoral college, including D.C.’s 3 votes, Trump would have beat Clinton 312.9 to 225.1. In reality, if Michigan goes in favor of Trump, the count will be 316 to 228 which is surprisingly similar. It’s not hard to imagine some federal statisticians crunching numbers and tweaking the electoral college in a back room somewhere in Washington. It’s interesting to consider that if we remove the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the count would be 222.6 to 222.2 proving just how much of a role the Rust Belt plays in this scenario as well as deciding the election in reality.
Nobody can predict the future course democracy will take in our country. Perhaps the representation of the electoral college will change, be replaced, or continue on in its current state. As of now, it plays a key role in directing the will of the nation through the representatives that champion the American democratic process.
They say the devil is in the details. And the details of this democracy are definitely geographic.