The electoral college does not favor large states

Every four years, some hardworking and enterprising journalists do some digging around in the political science literature, talk with some people who sound like they know what they’re talking about, and then resurface to tell the world about the counterintuitive finding that the Electoral College actually benefits voters in large states.

Well, as I like to say to my social science students: Just ‘cos it’s counterintuitive, that don’t make it true.

The Electoral College benefits voters in swing states, and it slightly benefits voters in small states (on average). Large states are not benefited (except when they happen to be swing states such as Ohio or Florida, but we knew that already).

See here for the fuller discussion.

I just wanted to put this out here to get out in front of the discussion. So that if any of you do see this argument floating around, youall can shoot it down before it fully takes off…

6 thoughts on “The electoral college does not favor large states

  1. @ Elroy Jetson

    That is true, in a way. In addition, it was true that the founding fathers actually didn't 100% trust the general populace. That is why there are actual electoral college voters instead of talling up the voters in each state.

    Even though I live is a large state, I am starting to see the wisdom of the electoral college. States such as California and New York and strong economies when the nation is wealthy. Think movies, tourism, organic food, etc. But if you think in economic terms of providing the basic necessaties of civilization, such as cheap food, energy, other natural resources, these economies are still prevelant in small states, and thus these voters are going to vote in a way that's best for the backbone of America.

  2. Elroy and Malcolm:

    I have no problem with these sorts of arguments. I just am bothered by the (false) claim that residents of larger states have more voting power. As an applied mathematician myself, one thing I hate is to see mathematics misused to intimidate people into believing something that isn't true.

  3. To make every vote in every state politically relevant and equal in presidential elections, support the National Popular Vote bill.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 21 legislative chambers (one house in CO, AR, ME, NC, and WA, and two houses in MD, IL, HI, CA, MA, NJ, RI, and VT). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.


  4. The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

    Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has "only" 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

    The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York's use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming—both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

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