Commentaries on Representation

The Blog for Thirty-Thousand.org

Commentaries on Representation

The Blog for Thirty-Thousand.org

The Electoral College Is Not Working the Way the Founders Planned

The founders expected the House of Representatives, and therefore the Electoral College, to grow along with the nation’s total population. However, because its size has been frozen for so long, its inequities have been increasingly exacerbated. A much larger House would force interstate parity onto the Electoral College.

Every four years the President is elected according to a process defined by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution,1ConstitutionCenter.org: Article II, Section 1. which specifies that each state must choose Electors who will, in turn, vote for the President. The only restriction is that “no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector”. For each state, the total number of Electors is “equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress”. For example, if a state has 14 Representatives, it will have 16 Electors.

It was not until the early 1800s that this process became commonly known as the “Electoral College”, a term which was first written into federal law in 1845. To modern ears, it seems strange to call it a “college” but, at the time, that word referred to an “assemblage or society of men”, a term that was then used in various ways, such as the “college of Cardinals”.

How are the Electors chosen?

The Constitution leaves it up to each state to determine the method by which its Electors are chosen. Currently, in every state, a slate of Electors is chosen by each of the states’ political parties prior to the presidential election. In the 48 states that use the winner-takes-all method, whichever presidential ticket wins the statewide popular vote is actually a victory for his or her party’s slate of Electors.

In the two states that do not use the winner-takes-all method – Maine and Nebraska – an Elector is chosen by the “district system”. This allows each congressional district to choose its own Elector based on which presidential candidate wins that district’s popular vote. So, for example, in the 2020 presidential election, Maine’s two congressional districts split between the Republican and Democrat candidates. However, in both of those states, the additional two Electors (corresponding to the two Senators) are awarded to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

In all cases, the winning Electors are then expected to select their party’s candidate.

The Size of the Electoral College

As stated above, the original Constitution states that the total number of presidential Electors is equal to the total number of House Representatives plus the total number of Senators. So how did we come to have 538 Electors?

From 1913 to 1959, there were 435 Representatives and 96 Senators, resulting in a total of 531 presidential Electors. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union in 1959, increasing the number of Senators to 100, and temporarily increasing the number of Representatives to 437, resulting in a total of 537 Electors for the 1960 presidential election (in which John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon). In 1961, the 23rd amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting to the District of Columbia (“D.C.”) a number of Electors equal to that of the smallest state, thereby increasing the total number of Electors by three. However, the 18th apportionment (resulting from the 1960 census) returned the total number of Representatives to the politically sacrosanct number of 435. As a result, there were then 538 presidential electors by the 1964 presidential election, and it has remained that size ever since.

Therefore, though the U.S. population has more than tripled in the last 110 years, our number of Electors has increased by less than 1%!2A 0.56% increase from 531 to 538. That is not how it was supposed to work.

When the founders created this Electoral process, it was generally expected that the size of the House would forever grow proportionately with the nation’s total population and therefore so would the size of the EC! In fact, the very first Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure this would happen! However, this fundamental principle of representation was abandoned after the founding generation died off and the career politicians took over.

The Inequity of Too Few Electors

A common criticism of the EC is that each state’s share of total Electoral votes is disproportionate to its share of the total apportionment population and, as a result, there is a significant lack of parity from state to state. There are two different causes for this lack of parity, the first of which results from disregarding the founders’ design.

According to the Constitution, “Representatives … shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers”. However, because Congress has authorized far too few Representatives, the apportionment fails to do that accurately (as required by that language). Instead, it merely approximates the states’ respective numbers and, as a result, the U.S. House of Representatives is in egregious violation of the Constitution’s one-person-one-vote equality requirement. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the disparity between the largest and smallest congressional districts is 82%, and the relative standard deviation of all the district sizes is a whopping 2,986%. Because the number of Electors is largely derived from the number of Representatives, these interstate disparities are duplicated in the EC.

The second cause for these interstate disparities is commonly referred to as the “small-state advantage”. This results from each state’s number of Electors being equal to its number of Representatives plus two. Because the Representatives are apportioned in a quasi-proportionate way, adding two to each results in Electoral delegations that are even less proportionate to the states’ respective populations. This disparity is by design; however, because the founders anticipated that the House of Representatives would grow considerably in the succeeding decades, the small-state advantage was expected to diminish accordingly.

Both of these root causes are explained further below.

One person, one partial vote: A Tale of Two States

The egregious inequality produced by grossly unequal congressional districts also distorts the Electoral College process in such a way as to create completely indefensible inequities among the states relative to the presidential elections. This point will be demonstrated by two different examples.

The first example is provided by the two geographically smallest states: Rhode Island, with a population of 1,098,163, and Delaware, with a population of 990,837. Though Rhode Island’s population is only 10.8% more than Delaware’s, the mathematical calculation that apportions 435 Representatives gives Rhode Island twice as many Representatives as Delaware! Adding two to each state, Delaware has three Electors while Rhode Island has four. In other words, as a result of Rhode Island’s population being only 10.8% more than Delaware’s, they have 33% more presidential Electors. This gives Rhode Islanders 20% greater political weight in the EC than do Delawareans.3Calculating the political weight advantage: RI has 274,541 residents/Elector, and DE has 330,279/Elector, which is 20% more. Therefore, RI’s residents have 20% greater weight than DE’s.

The second example: Though South Dakota’s population is 54% larger than Wyoming’s,4Per the 2020 census, the population sizes of South Dakota and Wyoming are 887,770 and 577,719, respectively. each state has only one congressional district, and therefore each has three Electors.  Consequently, Wyomingites have 54% more political weight in the presidential elections than South Dakotans.5Because South Dakota’s congressional district is 54% larger than Wyoming’s, the citizens of Wyoming have 54% greater political weight than the Citizens of South Dakota. This calculation can be more easily understood with a simple example: District A has a population of 1,000,000, and District B has a population of 500,000. Therefore, because District A has twice the population of District B, the citizens of District B have twice the voting weight of citizens of District A.

Note that for both of these examples, the inequity has nothing to do with the small-state advantage! Instead, it results from the underlying (and unconstitutional) inequity in the apportionment of representation. That is, the problem is not the Electoral College, it is the size of the U.S. House.

Relative to the presidential elections, there is absolutely no justification for Rhode Islanders having 20% more weight than Delawareans. And there is absolutely no justification for Wyomingites having 54% more political weight than South Dakotans. And yet, these inequities seem to be completely overlooked.

The Small-State Advantage

Because every state’s EC delegation is equal to the number of its Representatives plus two, the less populous states enjoy a greater share of representation in the EC than do the more populous ones relative to their respective population totals. This was a result of negotiations during the constitutional convention in 1787 (to help entice the smaller states, which were most of the anti-slave states, to join into a federation with the larger slave states).

The impact of the small-state advantage is often viewed in an overly simplified way: For the five states that each only have one Representative, such as Delaware, adding two increases their number of Electors by 200% (from one to three). For the largest state — California with its 52 Representatives — adding two increases its number of Electors by less than 4%. And, of course, all the other states lie somewhere in between.

However, though the smaller states are generally benefited by this, that simplified conceptualization is very inaccurate as revealed by the aggregate analysis.

The Aggregate Analysis

The actual impact of the additional two Electors is more complicated than expected for two different reasons. First, it can either compound or offset the underlying disparities resulting from the apportionment inequities. And second, its impact on any particular state is a function of the aggregate impact of adding 100 Electors to all 50 states.

In the histogram below, the vertical bars indicate how much more (or less) representation each state has in the EC relative to its share of population.

Figure 1

Returning to the example of Delaware, though it had 0.30% of the total apportionment population, its single Representative is only 0.23% of the states’ representation in the House (as it was shortchanged by the apportionment process). Adding two Electors gives Delaware 0.56% of the states’ representation in the EC.6For the purposes of this analysis, DC’s total population and three Electors are disregarded. Including them would change some of these percentages slightly, but would not change the overall state-to-state analysis which is the basis of the apportionment. Therefore, as indicated in the chart above, Delaware’s share of the EC is 87% more than its share of the total population.70.56% is 87% more than 0.30%. However, that is much less than the simplified analysis of its “small-state advantage” suggested (as it was not a 200% increase).

In fact, the impact of adding two electors to each of the states is entirely different than would be expected by the simplified analysis. To understand why, see the detailed analysis from which this commentary is drawn. For example, though California has 11.95% of the total apportionment population, its share of the EC is only 10%.

If there were perfect parity, all of the values in the chart above would be zero. As it is, the average deviation to perfect parity is 38%.8The average deviation is the average of the absolute values of all of the deviations.

In order to bring the states close to perfect parity, the size of the House has to be substantially increased. This is shown by the chart below, which illustrates a House with 6,692 Representatives, a size which is compliant with the intended version of Article the first, and effectively compliant with the Constitution’s one-person-one-vote requirement. The average deviation of this solution is only 3.0%, which is very close to perfect parity.

Figure 2

This scenario achieves near perfect parity for two reasons. First, with a 6,692-Representative apportionment, the underlying disparity between the largest and smallest congressional districts is only 3.7% (with a corresponding relative standard deviation of 12%), substantially eliminating the apportionment inequities. Second, because there are so many more Representatives for each state, augmenting those totals by two is of little mathematical consequence.

The supporting detail for all of the preceding analyses is provided here

What is the justification for the Electoral College?

The principal benefit of the electoral college system is that, in order be elected to the presidency, a candidate must garner popular support in multiple regions of the country. This ensures that the President will have the broader base of support necessary to credibly represent a diverse multi-state republic. Otherwise, if the President were elected via a national vote, many regions of the country would become irrelevant due to the high population concentration in a relatively small number of metropolitan areas.

Therefore, if “direct democracy” were used to elect the President, much of rural America, along with all the less populated states, such as New Hampshire and Wyoming, would have very little influence over the election of the President. By analogy, imagine how egregious it would be if all legislation were decided by the largest metropolitan areas, effectively excluding the rural areas and least populous states from the process.

It is clear that the Electoral College is here to stay. Given that, we should focus our efforts on maximizing its equitability, and the only way to do that is by substantially enlarging our House of Representatives.

© Thirty-Thousand.org [published 08/31/22]

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  • 1
    ConstitutionCenter.org: Article II, Section 1.
  • 2
    A 0.56% increase from 531 to 538.
  • 3
    Calculating the political weight advantage: RI has 274,541 residents/Elector, and DE has 330,279/Elector, which is 20% more. Therefore, RI’s residents have 20% greater weight than DE’s.
  • 4
    Per the 2020 census, the population sizes of South Dakota and Wyoming are 887,770 and 577,719, respectively.
  • 5
    Because South Dakota’s congressional district is 54% larger than Wyoming’s, the citizens of Wyoming have 54% greater political weight than the Citizens of South Dakota. This calculation can be more easily understood with a simple example: District A has a population of 1,000,000, and District B has a population of 500,000. Therefore, because District A has twice the population of District B, the citizens of District B have twice the voting weight of citizens of District A.
  • 6
    For the purposes of this analysis, DC’s total population and three Electors are disregarded. Including them would change some of these percentages slightly, but would not change the overall state-to-state analysis which is the basis of the apportionment.
  • 7
    0.56% is 87% more than 0.30%.
  • 8
    The average deviation is the average of the absolute values of all of the deviations.