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The Electoral College Is Not About The Little Guy

by Raffi Piliero

It’s never been about helping the small states, but helping the red states.

The Electoral College is a divisive institution, has been for over two hundred years, and probably will always be.

Conservatives support it because of the potential to disproportionately concentrate power across less-populous mid-western states, while liberals hate it for exactly that reason; it removes power from highly populated Democratic strongholds such as New York and California.

As a result, arguments for the Electoral College without fail proceed by stating that the institution is about avoiding the marginalization of smaller states; after all, who wants a world in which the election is decided solely by California and New York? However, this is disingenuous. The Electoral College over-compensates by artificially inflating the votes of citizens in smaller (and, incidentally, conservative) states to two or three times that of citizens in larger states, and mistakenly assumes that a direct vote would concentrate campaigns and electoral balances of power solely in large states.

The origins of the Electoral College are far from noble; far from being a bulwark of democracy, the system was initially designed as a compromise to slave-holding states to maintain Southern power. A system designed by popular vote would favor Northern states, with a larger percentage of voting citizens (slaves, of course, could not vote). This was unacceptable to Southern states, who wanted the ability to elect candidates that would not call into question slavery, the bedrock of the Southern economy.

The compromise was the Electoral College, apportioning electors just as House seats were divided (with slaves counting as three-fifths of a person). The conservative conflation of red-state interests and small-state interests should be called into question; the original design of the system was specifically to ensure Southern whites would have a disproportionate influence.

Some will surely reply that although the system has a suspect genealogy, the effects today are democratic by ensuring that every state counts, without elections being decided by California and New York; this incentivizes campaigns that go to every state, instead of concentrating in populated strongholds. However, if the goal is to ensure campaigns go to smaller states, the Electoral College has failed miserably. Campaigns routinely go for states with the highest electoral vote yield, which is determined by population.

This brings campaigns to large battleground states; campaigns blare ads in Ohio and Florida while smaller, polarized states such as Wyoming and Vermont get scant attention. Only a third of campaign events were held in states that weren’t Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan; that is, forty-four states got a third of the attention, with 94% of campaign events held in twelve states, both of which hardly seem like a recipe for small-state inclusion.

Regardless, the problem of the direct vote boogeyman exists in neither theory nor practice. If a Democratic candidate were to secure a clean sweep of both California and New York (which is generous due to large pockets of conservativism in both states), they would only secure 18% of the national vote; any campaign manager that recommended only campaigning in those two states would be quickly out of a job. In addition, the three most populated states are also the most polarized; Texas hasn’t gone to a Democrat since Carter, New York to a Republican since Reagan, and California to a Republican since the first Bush. No candidate worth their salt would decide it to be worth it to focus their attention exclusively on states with voters set in their ways, with a maximum upside of securing 18% of the population’s votes.

However, a popular vote would force candidates to revisit states they previously wrote off in a winner-take-all system; instead of Hillary Clinton deciding Texas was a foregone conclusion, imagine a campaign that focused on picking up votes in El Paso, Austin, Denton, and Dallas

However, even if we grant the premise that the Electoral College has been a panacea for small states, we should be skeptical of whether this is desirable to begin with. A presidential election is about electing a leader to serve the country, not the parochial interests of fifty atomized states; viewing elections as a tug-of-war between states is counterproductive and elevates the interests of individual constituencies and voting blocs at the expense of preserving the power of each voter. Supporters of the Electoral College claim that California and New York shouldn’t hold sway over smaller states. Why? They have larger populations, and a larger number of citizens that deserve to have their interests represented.

Take Wyoming (a small state and Republican stronghold) and California (a large state and Democratic stronghold) as an example. California is 68 times more populated, yet only has 18 times more electoral votes (55 to 3). We all agree that a system that elevated the individual votes of someone in California over someone in Wyoming would be undemocratic; why are we willing to accept as quintessentially American a system that gives someone in Wyoming three times more electoral sway than if they had hopped on a plane to California to vote there? The Electoral College by design ensures that a vote counts more if cast from Cheyenne or Jackson than Los Angeles or San Francisco.

The Electoral College was designed to inflate the votes of white-slaveholders, at the expense of democracy. Instead of grasping at straws to prove that a holdover from slavery is pro-democracy, conservatives should acknowledge what we already know: They support the Electoral College because it de facto gives red-state voters two or three more ballots than anyone else, which is hardly a reason to continue marginalizing the votes of everyone else.  A direct popular vote would force campaigns to focus on securing each and every vote, irrespective of location, which would lead to more inclusion of small states.

The Electoral College diagnoses a sickness that doesn’t exist, and simultaneously prescribes a treatment worse than the disease, concentrating elections in Ohio and Florida. We can – and must – do better; we aren’t Californians or Wyomans, but Americans, and each American should have an equal say.