How Much Does YOUR Vote Count?

No, this isn’t going to be one of those “don’t vote, it only encourages them” posts. Instead, I’m talking about the electoral college today.

This post was sparked by a segment on Rachel Maddow in which she pointed out that in addition to smaller states being able to exercise influence disproportional to their populations through representation in the Senate (every state gets two Senators, making states with under a million people like Alaska and North Dakota and Wyoming equal in power in the Senate to states with tens of millions like California and New York and Texas), the same holds true, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree, with the arcane system we know as the electoral college.

I won’t bother with the history of the electoral college, because it’s not really relevant: the electoral college exists today, whatever its origins were. If you’re not familiar, there’s a fantastic explainer on it at the equally fantastic Newsbound (check ’em out!). The Newsbound explainer focuses on what sort of distorting effect having our Presidents chosen via this arcane and archaic system has on our political system. Even if you are familiar with the electoral college, you might learn something from their cogent and easy-to-understand presentation of the issue. Between that and Rachel Maddow’s brief segment on it, I got to thinking that it might be instructive to put together a spreadsheet of how exactly the electoral college skews our votes, depending upon the state in which we live.

This is a snapshot (jpg) of all fifty states (plus the District of Columbia, which has three electoral votes in Presidential races), including their population (as of the 2010 census numbers, which are used to calculate the next election’s electoral college representation) and the number of electoral votes each state is allocated. The final column is the number of individual citizens per elector. In other words, how many people in the state are there for every elector? You might think that number would be equal amongst the states, in the same way representation in the House of Representatives is proportional…but you’d be wrong. Electoral college representation, while it does follow population somewhat, is nowhere near equal in its distribution of votes among states. Here’s the list, sorted alphabetically by state (if you would like the actual spreadsheet I used in XLS format, you can download it here and re-order the data yourself. My data came from About.com’s page on the subject, which in turn came from the US Census):

spreadsheet snapshot of electoral votes sorted alphabetically
Electoral college votes, alphabetically by state

Hard to figure out what it means, laid out alphabetically like this. However, note the totals row. The total electoral college votes are, as they have been for decades now, 538. The center total was the US population as of 2010. The column to take note of, though, is the final one. That’s not a total, but rather an averaging of the citizens-per-elector (which I’ll call CPE) of all the states. In other words, number of citizens per elector in the electoral college is 573,876, averaged over the entire country. So if you live in Kentucky or Arizona or Tennessee, your citizens-per-elector (CPE) is pretty close to the national average. As you’ll see in this next sorting of the data, however, the variance between states is huge, and most states in the country either benefit or are given the short end of the stick from the way electoral votes are apportioned. For reference, here’s above data, sorted by total electoral votes per state:

spreadsheet snapshot of electoral votes sorted highest to lowest
Electoral college votes, sorted by number of votes

If you follow politics, not a big surprise: the most-populous states have the most electoral votes, as you’d expect: California, New York and Texas top this list, with the comparatively-empty (or very small) states like Montana and Delaware and South Dakota bringing up the rear. Looked at this way, it almost makes sense in that one would expect the larger states to have more electoral college votes. Even here, though, the correlation between population and electoral college votes isn’t one-to-one. Colorado, for example, which has several hundred thousand more residents than either South Carolina or Alabama, nevertheless has the same number of electoral votes (9) as those two states. So even in this sorting, one can begin to see how the electoral college apportionment of votes disadvantages some states. Now, take a look at the data sorted by column D – the CPE column (it was incorrectly labeled “voters per elector” on my spreadsheet. Sorry for the error):

spreadsheet snapshot of electoral votes sorted by citizens per elector
Electoral college votes, sorted by citizens-per-elector

Looked at this way, we get the full impact of just how disadvantaged some of the larger states are, relative to less-populous states. Sure, California’s 55 electoral votes dwarfs Wyoming’s 3. But dividing California’s CPE total by Wyoming’s reveals that every citizen’s vote in Wyoming counts for 3.60 California voters. On this list, sorted this way, the big winners – again, very similar to the Senate – are (generally) the states with the smallest populations. It’s even crazier when examining the states with the same electoral vote totals. Minnesota, Wisconsisn, Maryland and Missouri each get ten electoral votes, for example. Yet in Missouri, the electoral college requires over 598,000 citizens for each of that state’s electoral votes, while in Minnesota, the number required for each electoral vote is only just over 530,000. It takes more citizens (and presumably more voters) to make each electoral vote in four different states which all have ten electoral votes. Fair? Hardly.

For a more in-depth run down of the distorting effects (not just this one) the electoral college has on our elections, I cannot recommend highly enough the Newsbound explainer on the subject.