Demographics

Why Splitting Electoral Votes Proportionally Is Not the Answer

In another post, we discussed the problems with dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district (in a word: gerrymandering).  Another proposed solution to the winner-take-all problem is allocating electors proportionally based on the votes of the state at large.  Simply put, if a candidate won 70%-30% in a state with 10 electoral votes, 7 votes would go to the winner and 3 to the runner-up. 

The upsides of this proposal are that more votes would matter, turnout would increase, and candidates would have incentives to go to more places. But proportional representation is unlikely to create a national campaign, nor would it make every vote truly equal.  Indeed, a proportional system may lead to an even more undemocratic result than is likely under our current system.

While there would be fewer wasted votes under a proportional system, it would not make every vote count. Absent a constitutional amendment, the votes would have to be rounded to the nearest whole elector.  So there would still be wasted surplus votes and votes for the runner up that do not count in the final tally.  In close elections, this could lead to the winner of the national popular vote still losing the presidency.

There is also a feasibility problem. Unless all or almost all states signed on, the campaigns would still not be truly national—and many states will be unwilling to split their votes for fear of losing political influence. 

Splitting up a state’s electoral votes makes sense for a few small states—like Maine and Nebraska—that are perpetually ignored.  But most states adopted a winner-take-all system in order to increase their political heft. They wanted candidates to campaign in their states in hopes of winning a large number of electoral votes at once.  Therefore, states will be unlikely to unilaterally split their votes for fear of losing that clout. 

Safe states would hesitate to give up any of their votes to the other party, and swing states would hesitate to lose their special status. And as long as just a few big swing states kept the winner-take-all system, candidates would have a strong incentive to focus their campaigns on those states alone rather than battling it out for the one or two swing electoral votes in most other states.

So in order for proportional representation to work, there would have to be an interstate agreement similar to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. But unlike the Compact, which only needs states with 270 total electoral votes to go into effect and guarantee a truly national campaign (and has 196 votes committed from 16 jurisdictions now), a proportional system would require nearly all the states to participate to be effective.



Youth must be served

As this article explains, voter turnout among youths can be decisive in elections.

But the electoral college system in this century is biased against young voters. Why? Swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have some of the highest median ages in the country:

The key swing states Florida and Pennsylvania have the first and second highest percentage of residents over the age of 65. Voters in these older states decide the election and the young people everywhere else are taken for granted. 



Nationally women can win

This article starts with the assumption that the American electorate is somehow biased against women candidates. In fact it is the electoral college system that is biased. If the president were elected by the national vote then women candidates would usually be competitive and of course one already would have won.

The American people are not biased against women. The system is. The shame is that feminists regardless of gender are not more vigorously rallying against the electoral college system.

The reason the system is biased against women is that by chance in the swing states a large fraction of women are evangelicals. They do not support much of the agenda that commands the adherence of a large majority of women nationally. So this minority fraction of women frustrates what most women want. This is a failure of democracy.

Now that the Supreme Court has opted out of its historic role of promoting democracy, it is even more important for women at large to change the electoral system. Feminists can’t count on the Supreme Court, and especially not on the five male conservative members, to help them out.



Think the Electoral College benefits small and rural states? Not so fast.

Conventional wisdom says that a national popular vote will harm the interests of small, rural states.  It is true that because a state’s electoral votes equal its representation in the House plus two votes for each Senator, small states do have a slightly higher share of Electoral College votes than they would have if the votes were distributed in accordance to population alone.

But how much does that really matter? The fact that Idaho has four electoral votes instead of two does not mean that candidates try to win any votes in Idaho.  No candidate visited the state in 2016, nor did candidates flood the airwaves with ads, nor did they discuss policy issues of particular concern to Idaho, nor did they set up extensive get-out-the-vote operations.  As a result, only 59.2% of eligible voters in Idaho voted for president in 2016.  Rhode Island, which also has four electoral votes, was similarly ignored completely by candidates and, not surprisingly, had correspondingly low turnout of 59.1%.

On the other hand, New Hampshire, which has the same number of electoral votes as Idaho and Rhode Island, got 21 visits from candidates in 2016, plus countless ads and a serious get-out-the vote effort. Not surprisingly, turnout for the presidential election in New Hampshire was 71.4%—the second highest in the nation. 

The differing treatment of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Idaho is explained by the fact that New Hampshire is a swing state while Rhode Island and Idaho are not.

New Hampshire gets attention in spite of the fact that it is small, not because it is small. 

In a piece in Bloomberg, Justin Fox explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, people criticized the Electoral College because it unfairly gave an advantage to big states and big cities, at the expense of small states. That’s because back then, the five biggest states—New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—were all swing states. As Fox notes, any advantages conferred by the system to big states, to Republicans, or to Democrats, are transient:  

It’s easy enough to look back at a presidential election and determine how the Electoral College hurt or helped your side. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to come up with reasonable suppositions about which states will play a more or less decisive role in an impending election. Determining who the Electoral College helps or hurts over the long run, though, may be too tough a puzzle for anyone to solve.

... 

The best way to think of the Electoral College may be as a wrench that occasionally gets thrown into the works of American presidential elections, delivering a result that is at odds with the popular vote. I would beware of becoming too confident that said wrench is on your side. 

In other words, the only constant of the Electoral College is that it benefits swing states.  Most small states, like most big states, get ignored. 

And if you don’t live in a swing state, the consequences go far beyond how many ads you are likely to see in an election year. Your industries  get ignored, your funding gets cut, and you are less likely to get disaster relief funding than people who live in the handful of states that decide elections.



The electoral college hates choice for women

The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.

It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position. 

But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals. 

The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.



The Electoral College Versus Religion

This map shows one of the many religious denominations that are regionally concentrated outside swing states. 

The percentage of Mormons by county:

A very quick scan at this map reveals that with the arguable exception of Nevada virtually all Mormons live in states that are taken for granted in the general presidential election. As a result, members of this denomination are effectively irrelevant in the general presidential election. 

Generally speaking, Mormons vote by a large majority for the same political party and share a common agenda. If the national popular vote picked the president this religious block would get attention from all major party candidates. But instead the winner-take-all electoral college system politically neutralizes members of the Church.



The National Popular Vote Benefits People, Not Parties

In an opinion piece published in The Hill, Lara Brown urges Democrats to “stop worrying about the electoral college,” because over time, demographics are likely to shift and the current system may favor Democrats.  Likewise, Republican pollster Jim Hobart notes that the electoral college is “cyclical,” and that in a few years, Republicans may wish that we chose our president by national popular vote.

They are both right that under the current system, swing states become safe states, and safe states for one party can become safe states for the other, with relative frequency.  Therefore, Republicans are not likely to retain a long-term structural advantage from keeping the current system, nor are Democrats always going to be better off under a national popular vote.

But under the current system, even if the identity of the swing states that decide elections changes to the advantage of one party or the other, certain things will remain the same:

That is why so many people—of all political persuasions—have been working tirelessly to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact since 2006, through Republican and Democratic electoral victories alike.  No one has the right to always have their candidate of choice elected president.  But if the president has to win the national popular vote, every person’s vote will count equally. 



The Small State "Advantage" Under the Electoral College is Illusory

Some argue that because small states get more electors relative to their population than large states, the Electoral College is good for small states and protects their interests.  However, that minor advantage is far outweighed by the incentives to ignore people who live in small states entirely when almost every state awards all of its electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.  From Ryan Cooper at The Week:

The 2016 candidates spent almost all their time in a handful of states, most of them medium or large. Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan. If we include Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona, then those 12 states account for 96 percent of campaign events.

The nine smallest states (including D.C.), meanwhile, got precisely zero attention. Only the tenth-largest, New Hampshire, got any events at all. In total, 25 states (mostly small and medium-sized) got no events whatsoever. And while it's true the states that got huge attention are mostly on the big side, the very largest states were almost totally ignored as well — California and Texas got one event apiece, and New York none.

The reason for this is obvious. Almost every state gives all of its electoral votes to whoever wins the state — allowing candidates to take the votes of strongly partisan states for granted. Indeed, it's actively foolish to campaign where you are guaranteed to win or lose — only the swing states matter. It would be a waste of resources for a Democrat to campaign in California or Kentucky, or for a Republican to campaign in New York or D.C.



Electoral college system encourages climate change

A strong majority of Americans supports the government leading in battle against climate change. But the electoral college system privileges states that account for the major part of greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three swing states that were integral to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, were among the top 12 states in aggregate emissions.  These states would have to change their energy use the most in order to defeat climate change. Change is hard. 

 Therefore in 2016 and again in his 2020 campaign it serves Donald Trump‘s interests to support climate change denial and to be in favor of continuing business as usual, which is obviously threatening global climate disaster. If it were not for the electoral college system the United States would be much more likely to have a climate change policy that reflects the wishes of most Americans and all scientists who pay any attention to this subject. 

All the other states on the list of 12 are taken for granted by both parties. The key fact is the presence of the three swing states in the dirty dozen. 

See this chart:

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Swing States Stop Swinging

If you live in one of the few battleground states left, you may believe that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is against your interests as one of the few voters who actually has a say in the outcome of presidential elections.  But history has shown that states do not remain swing states forever, and voters in some of the most important swing states in past elections may soon find themselves joining most of the country in the Land of the Ignored Voters in the next election.

Take Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 election. Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, criticized the popular vote movement as being against Ohioans’ interests because a national popular vote “would make Ohio not a player in the political game.” 

However, looking forward to the 2020 election, Ohio has already lost its coveted swing state status and moved into the into the column of states taken for granted by the Republican party.  The 2018 midterms, which generally provided significant gains for Democrats, demonstrated that Ohio has moved further into solidly-Republican territory “[s]o much so that the perpetual battleground seems less and less likely to be in play in 2020.”  A prominent Democratic super PAC has “significantly downgrade[d] Ohio’s targetability, listing it as a ‘GOP Watch’ state along with Texas and Iowa.”

 As a result, Republican commentator Scott Jennings predicts that “If you are one of the masochistic few who loves hearing your phone ring 48 times a day every fourth October, you are about to be sorely disappointed.”

On the other hand, Virginia, which had been a solidly-Republican state, then became a swing state, now looks more and more like a safely blue state.  The result: candidates may soon stop visiting Virginia, spending money in Virginia, and taking policy positions that serve the interests of Virginians. 

That former swing states should move to one column or another should not come as a surprise.  Indeed, even Democratic stronghold California used to be a swing state.  On the other side, Republican stronghold of Texas may become a swing state soon

As time goes on and demographics and party positions change, the key swing states that decide elections will inevitably shift.  A state with tremendous power and influence in one election may be completely ignored in the next.  But under the national popular vote, all votes will matter equally in every election.



Yup that’s it

This article correctly understands that the election turns entirely on who wins the statewide votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. and Wisconsin. The very strong economy in these four states gives the president an extremely good chance of winning reelection while losing the national popular vote by a margin of millions. That would mean that in half of the elections of this century the loser of the popular vote nationally would become president. 



Most of the 2020 Campaign Will Happen in Just Six Big States

Though defenders of the Electoral College often say that the institution is necessary to protect the interest of small states, in fact, the opposite is true.  A winning strategy for presidential candidates requires them to ignore small states and spend all their time and money on the few persuadable voters in large swing states.  

In 2016, 99% of campaign spending took place in only fourteen states, with half of that going to just four large states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  The rest of the United States was ignored.  And 2020 is shaping up to be even worse.  A pro-Trump Super PAC, America First Action, has stated that that just 13 states matter in the next election and plans to spend $250 million in just 6 large states—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

 The result of the election may be dependent on an even smaller pool of voters: swing voters in Florida.

In Florida, for example, the starting Trumpworld assumption is that 10.5 million votes could be cast, which would represent record turnout in a fast-growing state. To be sure of a win, the president would need around 5.2 million to 5.3 million votes. At least 4.3 million Floridians, according to the campaign models, are already assured to come out for the president. The goal from there is straightforward: Find the 972,000-odd voters who would get the president to the win number.

The president isn’t wrong to commit to this strategy. The eventual Democratic candidate will certainly focus all of his or her energy, money, and time on these same few voters, taking the rest of the country for granted.  It is the system that forces candidates to spend all their time and money in large swing states.



Electoral college shapes foreign policy

This would not be taking place if it were not likely to win votes in Florida. Without carrying Florida the president has precious little chance to win re-election. But for an important segment of Florida voters both Cuba and Venezuela are seen as enemy states. Hostility and intervention there wins votes, whereas these same voters may support, or at least not mind, the president’s withdrawal from Syria or his amicable attitude toward North Korea. 

Spanish-speaking voters in Texas or California are far more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump’s policies toward Mexico and Central America, from where they’ve come. But they are relatively indifferent to his Cuba or Venezuela policies, since most do not trace their origins from those areas. However, these voters are taken for granted or ignored in presidential politics because of the anti-democratic  electoral college system. 

This is another in a litany of bad aspects of the selection system. 



The Electoral College Distorts the Primary Process

The Electoral College system has a tremendous impact on candidates’ campaigns and policies.  But it also dictates who the candidates are in the first place.

The 2020 Democratic primary is in full swing, and voters have a staggering number of candidates to evaluate. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 49% of Democratic voters think it’s more important that a candidate is more likely to win compared to only 35% who think it’s more important that a candidate’s position on the issues is closest to their own.  A focus on electability in itself is not terribly surprising—any primary voter should be concerned about a candidate’s appeal to the broader electorate.  But under the Electoral College, primary voters can’t just evaluate which candidate they think will do the best across the nation as a whole.  Instead, they think about electability in terms of a fraction of a fraction of voters—that is, swing voters in swing states. As Ed Kilgore explains:

“Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.”

The problem is, voters tend not to be very good at determining electability. So the primary system forces voters to make a decision based on the perceived preferences of just a tiny sliver of the population, a double distortion that leads candidates even further away from the policies that most Americans actually want.



Both Candidates Will Continue to Fight for the Same Few States—While Ignoring Most of the Country

The manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign said that Trump thinks he can win a few states that Hilary Clinton carried in 2016, while repeating his victories in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  The Democratic candidate will, of course, have to win some of the states that Clinton lost in order to win in 2020.

The problem is that both parties are continuing to fight for the same handful of states, with hardly a thought for the rest of the nation. While the states that are up for grabs may slowly change over time, the overall number of competitive states has decreased.  This means that more and more of the country is left out of the presidential election conversation entirely.  Presidential candidates rarely or never visit most states.  Worse, they tailor their policy positions to the needs of swing states alone—with serious consequences.

Until every vote matters equally, the system will force candidates to spend almost all of their time and money on winning the votes of the small percentage of the country that live in big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, ignoring most of the small states. That is not the system that our founders envisioned, and is not one that is working today.



Impact Estimated

According to one estimate the decision to ask about citizenship may cause nearly 6 million people not to be counted, and thus not to be represented in the House and Electoral College. 

The current Electoral College system makes irrelevant campaigning in the general election in 40 states. This lowers turn-out by between 17 and 77 million. 



What 2020 will be like

The map below, from NationalPopularVote.com, totals general election campaign events by the nominees of the two major parties in 2016.

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This is by no means the most useful measuring stick for how the Electoral College skews the importance of voters toward only those in a few states. A candidate goes to a state in order to obtain local media coverage and to bolster enthusiasm among loyalists. But there's no particular reason for a candidate to go to a critical state every day for a week, even if the state were absolutely critical, like Florida. A much better measurement of a state's electoral importance is advertising spending and a secondary measurement is money spent on the ground building field offices and installing the many mechanisms to drive turn-out. Nevertheless, the map of visits reveals what everyone in presidential politics know: the vast majority of American voters are taken for granted in the presidential election