A subway commuter reads a newspaper featuring the US election results in New York on November 9, 2016. (Getty/Jewel Samad)

Who gets hurt worst by the Electoral College? It's not Democrats — it's democracy

Think the Electoral College benefits Republicans? That's only true now — but it disenfranchises most Americans


Reed E. Hundt
February 4, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
This is the second part of a two-part series.

Because the Democratic nominees in 2000 and 2016 won the national popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, most people naturally think the antiquated Electoral College system hurts Democrats more than Republicans.

In fact, the system is biased against individual voters in many states, women, African-Americans, certain religious denominations, immigrant citizens and workers in many job classifications. It’s not about parties, it’s about people.

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Moreover, if the national popular vote chose the president, the Republican Party would probably benefit, albeit after reforming its policies.

Let’s start with individual voters. The founders knowingly designed the selection system to give different weight to voters based on where they resided. They did this to make sure they could get the requisite nine states to ratify the Constitution. The alliance of slave states and small states insisted on getting an inequitable advantage in both the Senate (two senators from each state, regardless of population) and the House (slaves counted as three-fifths of a person without being citizens). Then they demanded those advantages applied to the choice of president -- hence, the number of electors was equal to the members of the House and Senate added together.

But the founders did not think the discrepancies in voting power among citizens of different states would be shockingly large. Today, they are. The founders’ formula has metastasized into ridiculous unfairness between citizens based merely on where they reside at the time of the election.

In the first contested presidential election, in 1796, the lack of proportionality was slight. For the winner, John Adams, 503 votes correlated to a single elector, whereas the loser, Thomas Jefferson, who enjoyed the advantage the system conferred on the South, got one elector for each 458 votes.

As the population steadily concentrated in a small number of states, however, the mismatch between voters and electors has become shockingly large — and unpredictably advantageous for the political parties. In 1960, an elector for Richard Nixon effectively represented 156,000 voters, whereas a John F. Kennedy elector stood for only 113,000. The system then favored the Democratic candidate, as it did again in 1992, when a Bill Clinton elector stood for 121,000 votes whereas a George H.W. Bush elector represented nearly twice as many, around 233,000.

In the last half of the 20th century, Democrats thought the Electoral College helped them. In 2000 and 2016 demographic change flipped the script. The turnabout was unfair to Hillary Clinton in 2016, when she got one elector for every 290,000 votes cast in her favor, while Donald Trump needed only 207,000.

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Even when comparing states where Trump won a plurality, the lack of proportionality in representation is striking. In Wyoming, a Trump elector represented on average only 58,000 voters. In West Virginia, an elector represented the interests, on average, of 98,000 Trump voters. Why should West Virginia voters have been disempowered relative to Wyoming voters? For these reasons, President Trump spoke for the best interests of Americans, and even his own party, when he said he preferred to have the winner of the national popular vote become president.

Second on the list of groups harmed by the current system is women.

In the debate over the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 extended the franchise to women, many men feared that the other sex would vote differently. In Texas, one group predicted that women would support “socialism, anarchy, and Mormonism.” This proved, not surprisingly, wrong. Until about 1960, women were more conservative than men, and consistently more likely to vote Republican. From 1980 to the present, however, women have favored Democrats more than have men.

In 2016 the “gender gap” had two parts: more women voted than men (52 percent of votes were cast by women in 2016), and women voted for Hillary Clinton by a bigger margin than men voted for Trump. (Clinton’s margin among women was 13 percent; Trump won men by 9 percent.).

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The sole reason that the majority of women did not see their preferred candidate become president is the Electoral College. In the handful of states that, by pure accident, are roughly balanced between Republican and Democratic voters it happened that the female margin for Clinton was less than the national average and the male margin for Trump was higher. As a result, by very thin pluralities, the Republican nominee won the swing states that produced an electoral vote majority.

The consequence of the anti-democratic presidential selection system is that women do not benefit from the federal policies most want. This is especially true with regard to health care and parental leave.

The presidential selection system’s victim groups also include:

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  • African-Americans,
  • certain religious denominations,
  • immigrants,
  • workers not critical to the electoral strategies of the parties.

Most African-Americans live in the South, as shown on the map below. In many of these states they compose between a quarter and a third of the population. Yet even in 2008, when the first African-American major-party nominee was on the ballot, in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, about 5 million black people cast their ballots in vain for Barack Obama. Not one elector represented their prayers, hopes and votes.

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In the current century, huge black majorities for Democratic candidates have rarely translated to Southern electoral votes. In 2000 and 2004 the Democrats obtained zero Southern electors, although a Southerner was on the ticket both times. In 2008 Obama won only Virginia, North Carolina and Florida; in 2012, only Virginia and Florida. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won only Virginia.

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The existing system is also unfair to members of religious denominations not concentrated in swing states. A clear example is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who comprise almost 7 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau.

Although Mormons typically vote Republican, 92 percent of them live in states where the presidential candidates of both parties regard the outcome as foreordained. Where LDS members are part of a large plurality, such as in Idaho and Utah, their extra, surplus votes are never weighed in a national count. In California, where 800,000 Mormons live -- the second largest group in any state -- LDS members typically vote for the statewide loser in the presidential contest, and so, like African-Americans in the South, do not see their votes translated to a single elector.

In this way, the presidential selection system unfairly minimizes the political impact of the members of a church which is roughly the same size as the largest single Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church.

By contrast, evangelical Protestants compose 25 percent of Michigan residents, as well as 24 percent in Florida, 22 percent in Wisconsin, and 19 percent in both Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Those are all swing states critical to any presidential campaign. That well-placed constituency emphatically has its voice heard.

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The current system is also biased against immigrants. As the chart below shows, more than 17 percent of the electorate comprises first or second-generation citizens. That share has been growing: Since the Immigration and Families Act of 1965, the fraction of foreign-born citizens began to rise from a historic low point to nearly 14 percent today, a number equaling the record previously set in 1890.

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One would expect that in a democracy with two major national political parties, neither would be able to champion anti-immigration, xenophobic policies if the number of new voters reached a size too large to ignore. Nor is there any inherent or obvious reason why all immigrants from many different countries would be inclined to pledge their allegiance to the same political party.

The mystery is why both parties did not compete for shares of the immigrant vote. If they had done so, very likely their legislators in Washington would have been compelled to negotiate a compromise resolving the myriad of complex issues relating to illegal and legal immigration.

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Instead, the Democrats have become the party of immigrants -- and the Republicans, not.

The principal explanation is the presidential selection system. The majority of immigrants in the last 50 years have moved to only five states: California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois. Only one of these states (Florida) is in the battleground category. In the other four, immigrant voters’ preferences for president are taken for granted, overridden, ignored and weighed inequitably.

Take California to illustrate the point.

About 20 percent of eligible California voters are immigrants, a greater percentage than in any other state. The vast majority of them vote Democratic, but millions of California votes for the Democratic nominee in 2016 were surplus – more than four million votes beyond what was necessary to compose a plurality. Therefore, the immigrant vote within the surplus, about 800,000, did not matter in determining who becomes president. These immigrant votes nearly doubled the total of all Republican votes in 2016 in North Dakota and South Dakota.

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Among swing states, only Florida and Nevada have noticeable percentages of residents born in Mexico or Central America. In no state are immigrant populations from other countries given fair weight in the general presidential election. As a result the concerns of these citizens are typically given unfairly slight attention, not only by the parties’ candidates but also by the incumbent presidents.

It is possible that if every vote had equal weight and a candidate had to win the largest number to become president, someone still might seek a national victory by stoking hostility to immigrants, or at least immigrants from a particular region in the world. But our current system literally invites such candidacies.

The presidential selection system is also unfair to people working in industries concentrated in the land of ignored voters, the 40 states where the parties treat the pluralities in the general election as inalterable.

For instance, there are about 50,000 lumberjacks in the United States. Their median income is less than $40,000 a year, and their work is extremely dangerous. Almost all of them live in states taken for granted by the presidential candidates. Certainly candidates for statewide office in Washington, Oregon and Idaho must pay attention to this sector, but presidential candidates devote exponentially more attention to coal miners, who are almost exactly as poorly paid, work in as dangerous an occupation, and are as numerous as lumberjacks. Why? Because they matter to the voting outcome in Pennsylvania.

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If every vote counted equally, coal miners would not matter to candidates any more than lumberjacks, or more than any other category of workers concentrated outside swing states.

To defend this miserable system, some advance the notion that the Electoral College is a collection of solons who are superior to voters and hence should pick the president. This is a College not mentioned in the Constitution, with no entrance requirements, no reading list, no teachers, no classes and no diplomas. In fact never in history have the electors met, debated, deliberated and discussed to a resolution the qualifications of candidates. Instead, in all circumstances, electors in sufficient number, dutifully following the wishes of the party that nominated them, have voted for the nominee of their party when the votes were needed.

Occasionally a rogue elector casts a symbolic vote, such as one for Faith Spotted Eagle in 2016, but that has never happened when such votes might have altered the outcome. Even when their party engaged in scandalous behavior, such as the “corrupt bargain” of the 1876 election, the requisite number of electors has done what their political bosses told them to do.

Nevertheless, what’s really reprehensible about the “solon” argument is that it contradicts the fundamental American principle. The people confer power to their governors, and are not mere subjects of rulers, whether that class is created by title, property or electoral scheme.

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Some contend that the system benefits voters in small states. The fear is that if candidates competed for national vote victory they would not pay attention to rural America. In fact, in the current system, the candidates pay no attention to any small state, with the exception of Nevada and New Hampshire. Those two get visits, spending and political promises not because they are small but because the balance of the electorate in those states is roughly even.

Commercial and media interests demonstrate, however, that in the electronic age companies and certainly candidates know how to reach every voter everywhere. Whether a voter lives in New England or New England, North Dakota (population 659), there’s a way for a Republican and Democratic nominee to pitch their wares, via email, Facebook, cell phone, cable or satellite television. The cost of reaching every voter is, per person, much cheaper than the advertising now focused exclusively on swing-state residents. It is inconceivable that the campaigns would not reach out to everyone.

Meanwhile, politicians in swing or battleground states may contend that the current system benefits them because they matter to presidential candidates more than elected officials in the ignored states. As a result, some are chosen as running mates, while others may obtain cabinet posts.

However, swing-state voters did not seek and do not want the job of playing a determining role in picking the president. Instead, like everyone else in the country, by huge majorities they tell pollsters that the person who wins the national vote should be president. Nevertheless, this cracked system causes campaigns to target people in swing states for round-the-clock pestering, and gives bad actors, like the Russians, clear targets for dirty tricks.

Ideally, every state legislature would pledge some or all of its electors to support the winner of the national popular vote. But if a few states took this action, either by law or through a ballot measure, then the odds of any presidential candidate winning the Electoral College without winning the national vote would drop dramatically. Faced with likely defeat by pursuing an exclusive swing-state strategy, both campaigns would seek both to win the pluralities in as many states as possible and also to win the national popular vote.

By taking this simple and straightforward step, acting through or outside legislatures, Americans can cause both campaigns to get out every vote, drive up participation by tens of millions, and change both parties so that they appeal to the great majority of Americans as opposed to mere factions — and no longer bias the system against races, religious groups, groups of workers, women, citizens of most states or any other American. Every vote would matter equally.

In a reformed, pro-democratic system both parties would have to appeal to the moderate, independent middle of the population. According to Gallup, independents compose the biggest slice of the voting populace, at 42 percent. If the national popular vote chose the president, the Republicans would shape their policies to appeal to the large middle of the electorate.

A myth of politics is that the voters choose the parties. The truth is the other way around. The parties choose the voters to whom they want to appeal. This is how they seek victory. If the Republican Party needed a national plurality to win the presidency, the party would appeal to the wishes of most people, instead of to the preferences of small factions in a few swing states. Similarly, the Democrats would have to mirror the middle. There’s no telling which party would do a better job in capturing the will of the people. We only know that if the national vote always chose the president, then the whole country would be far more likely to get what most people want from government than is the case today.


Reed E. Hundt

Reed E. Hundt is the CEO of Making Every Vote Count, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to expanding the understanding that how America picks the president causes far-reaching problems in our country and must change. Previously, he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997. He has taught at Yale College Law School and School of Management, practiced law in California and Washington, D.C., started for-profit and nonprofit firms, served as a board member for numerous technology and communications firms, and raised a family with his wife Betsy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is the author of "A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining Decisions," "You Say You Want a Revolution," "In China’s Shadow," "The Politics of Abundance" and "Zero Hour."

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