Politics and Government

Population and the Electoral College

Epistemic status: Speculative. I did some personal research on the electoral college, and have some intuitions about voting, but I have no special expertise in this area.  
This depressing webtool lets you figure out, among other scenarios, how few counties you can move to make Hillary Clinton win the electoral vote. (Spoiler at the bottom)


I do think that something like an electoral college is a good idea. It’s not hard to imagine a political coalition that consistently wins huge margins in big cities or a few highly populous states, gets virtually no votes elsewhere and still wins the popular vote. I think that would be bad.

That said, the current system is just *INCREDIBLY* shitty.

For those not in the loop; the # of electoral college votes for each state is determined by their # of congressional representatives. So, 2 senators plus at least 1 congressperson per state. This gives a huge advantage to low-population states. The two lowest population states, Vermont and Wyoming don’t even have 700,000 residents, but get fully 3 electoral votes.

States then supposedly get an additional congressional district (and congresspeople and electoral votes) for every roughly ~710,000 people living there. In reality there are weird irregularities in how new districts are added. Montana and Rhode Island both have a pop. of 1 mil +/- 100k, but MT gets 3 electoral votes while RI gets 4. Louisiana has ~4.53 mil people, Alabama has ~4.78, Louisiana has 8 votes Alabama has 9.

To show how distorting this system is is, here’s a sample of the population per electoral vote in different states, ordered by pop.:

CA (~37.25m pop/55e.votes)= 677,348 p/ev
TX (~25.15m pop/38e.votes)= 661,725 p/ev
PA (~12.70m pop/20e.votes)= 635,119 p/ev
VA (~8.00m pop/13e.votes) = 615,463 p/ev
WI (~5.69m pop/10e.votes)= 568,698 p/ev
AL (~4.78m pop/9e.votes)= 531,082 p/ev
LO (~4.53m pop/8e.votes)= 566,672 p/ev
NV (~2.70m pop/6e.votes)= 450,092 p/ev
WV (~1.85m pop/5e.votes)= 370,599 p/ev
RI (~1.05m pop/4e.votes) = 263,142 p/ev
MT(~0.99m pop/3e.votes) = 329,805 p/ev
VT(~0.62m pop/3e.votes) = 208,580 p/ev
WY(~0.56m pop/3e votes)= 187,875 p/ev

Revolting, yeah? Huge range in absolute voting power, huge variation in the per-unit effect of changes in population, multiple internal trend reversals, and this ISN’T EVEN ONE OF THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE PROBLEMS PEOPLE TALK ABOUT.

This is *not* a swing-state vs. safe state thing, this is not voter fraud, this is not ‘faithless electors’, this is literally just population per electoral vote. If California was a swing state, your vote would *still* count way less than someone in West Virginia, or Nevada, or Wisconsin, let alone Wyoming.

Changes I’d like to see:

1. Ditch the appointed ‘electors’ all together, they are a bad idea.
2. Decouple electoral votes from Congressional representation, and use a population-indexed point system with a less extreme small-state-friendly flattening term.

Keeping state voting-blocks unified makes sense due to the unification of their governments. Changes in the federal government affect Californians differently than Nevadans. Discrepancies in the per capita number of districts could also be sensible, I don’t know enough about it and I reserve judgment, but I can’t think of any reason to link # districts to electoral votes. I don’t know why we settled on that idea in the first place; availability heuristic and decision fatigue among the Framers perhaps?

Residents of small states should get their voting power nudged upward and residents of large states should get a nudge downward. I don’t know what weight to use, and there will be downsides to any system. But, Wyoming votes should not count nearly 4x more than California votes. Louisiana voters should not have less voting power than Alabama despite having a *lower* population, and moving a single county from one state to another should *probably* not flip presidential elections.