There’s some guy in Wyoming whose vote is worth three times more than mine. This has been going on in every presidential election for my entire life, and I’m sick and tired of it.
How does this happen? It’s because of the way the Electoral College has been rigged to work. It takes about three times as many votes to elect an Elector in California as it does to elect one in Wyoming. Anyone else who lives in California—or any other big state—faces the same discrimination. For the entire 20th century, however, it didn’t seem to be a problem, because the candidate with the most votes won each presidential election. But the Electoral College was like a low-grade fever lurking in the background. Now that fever has spiked. Twice in the last five elections the candidate with the most Electors has beaten the candidate with the most votes. And when it gets down to a battle between the man in Wyoming—with his one Elector—and me—with my one-third Elector—it’s easy to see who’ll win.
This is not how the system was supposed to work. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the others who drafted the Constitution would be just as appalled as we are at these current outbreaks of minority rule. The intent of the drafters was to create a collegial system by which political leaders—the Electors— would work together to pick the best candidate. Hamilton, as an Elector, lobbied those in other states to support the selection of George Washington. The system was by no means perfect, but it worked well enough to elect Washington unanimously in 1788 and elect James Monroe by one vote short of unanimous 32 years later in 1820. But by the early 19th century the pre-Civil War state legislatures—acting on their own—altered the election process by stripping Electors of their independence and turning the choice of Electors over to the newly-emerging political parties. At first glance, it looked like they were democratizing the process, but in fact they took the relatively benign process that the framers envisioned and calcified it into a system that could be controlled by a minority of voters.
Discrimination is Built into the System
The current version of the Elector system makes a mockery of the one-person/one-vote standard that has been required by the Supreme Court ever since 1962. Right now, voters in every state have voting rights that are different from those in every other state. No two states are the same. Your voting power may be dramatically different from someone across the country—or even just across the state line. The unfairness shows up in the number of votes it takes to elect one Elector in each state. In 2016, for example, it took 324,829 voters in Florida to elect each of that state’s 29 Electoral votes. But in North Dakota it took only 114,787 votes to elect each of its three Electors. In other words, voters in Florida had only 35% of the voting power of voters in North Dakota. This inequality exists across the board. If you live in Salem, Massachusetts, you have about 5% less voting power than someone in Salem, Oregon. In Springfield, Illinois, your vote is worth only 87% of someone in Springfield, Kentucky. In Kansas City, Missouri, your voting power is about 70% of someone living across the river in Kansas City, Kansas. In New York City, you could improve the value of your vote by 12% if you moved to Connecticut, but you’d decrease it by 4% if you moved to New Jersey.
There’s a myth that the framers of the Constitution intended to give small-state voters a slight edge to offset the advantages of big-city voters. But that myth has no basis in either history or in law. And even if it did, it would make almost no sense in the modern era. According to the U.S. census, Americans move 11.7 times in their lifetimes and often across state lines. As of 2012, for example, only about 45% of people living in Delaware were born there, while about 39% of the people who had been born there moved elsewhere. Similar numbers are true in every state including those in the nation’s heartland: only 59% of people living in Kansas were born there, and 43% who were born there had moved elsewhere. As Americans move around the country, they are unknowingly changing their voting power every time they cross state lines. If they had an advantage in one state, they may find it snatched away in the next.
The impact of the Electoral system on voting rights may seem just arbitrary or capricious, but there are other, more disturbing patterns built into the system. The system weakens the vote of urban residents, low-income people, and ethnic minorities. The percentage of minority residents in the four largest states is almost three times higher than in the four smallest states, and this compounds the discrimination that already favors small-state voters. As of 2014, racial minorities constituted about 58.1% of the population in California and about 54.7 % in Texas. Since it already takes many more voters in states like California and Texas to choose a single Elector, the added impact of minority-voter concentration is both startling and shocking. The Wyoming voter who enjoys about three times the voting power of a California voter is also about four times as likely to be a white voter. And a comparison of Texas and, say, North Dakota shows a discrimination against minority voters that is even more extreme.
One of the underpinnings of American democracy is the idea that “every vote counts.” But in the vote for President—the most important election of all—that phrase is a cruel joke. The current system insures that many votes are wasted and ignored. This sad phenomenon—the “useless vote”—is an inevitable by-product of the Elector system. The problem begins with the unequal voting-power allocated to voters in different states, but it is greatly magnified by the winner-take-all method of counting those votes. The number of Electors for each state is determined by the prior U.S. Census, which could be as much as ten years out of date. In most states the winning candidate gets all of the Electoral votes that are allotted to that state no matter how large or how small the winning margin might be. This can produce results that are mind-boggling. If candidate A wins Rhode Island by one vote and candidate B wins Idaho by 10,000 votes, those extra 9,999 votes in Idaho would have no significance at all under the current Electoral system. Each candidate would get four Electoral votes—the number currently assigned to both of those two states. The actual number of votes cast in either state would make no difference. Those other 9,999 voters might just as well have stayed home.
The Elector System is An Election Hacker’s Dream
The Electoral College takes all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our presidential election process and makes them dramatically worse. Every mistake, every attack, and every effort at voter suppression under the current Electoral system increases the chances that the end result will be distorted. Small problems that might have been absorbed into the larger national vote without changing the overall result become magnified into game-changing events. If you are intent on voter suppression or election-hacking, the Electoral College system is your best friend.
Exhibit A is Wisconsin in the 2016 presidential election. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was 3% less than the prior election—a decrease of 92,284 votes. Since the voting percentage actually increased in other states, suspicions were immediately aroused. Evidence of election interference has been growing ever since. USA Today reported on January 24, 2017, that Russian hackers had apparently “compromised” Democratic Party websites. CBS News said on March 30, 2017, that Russian hackers had established false “social accounts” to look like those of “real voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan.” Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert and former FBI agent, told Congress on March 2017, that there was strong evidence of Russian-funded fraud in Wisconsin. The indictment by the U.S. Special Prosecutor on February 16, 2018, alleged that Russian co-conspirators posing as “Blactivists” made a concerted effort to convince African-Americans not to vote in Wisconsin and in other states. And the Russians were not the only ones trying to suppress the vote in Wisconsin. A study from Priorities USA suggests that the decrease in Wisconsin voting may have been the result of that state’s aggressive enforcement of a strict new law on voter IDs, causing many voters—primarily African-Americans—to be turned away from the polls on technicalities.
How does the Electoral system enter into this picture? It simply makes every effort at tampering with the vote significantly worse. The Trump victory margin in Wisconsin of 22,748 was a plus for his campaign. But Clinton’s loss of those votes represented only about 0.8% of her nationwide margin of 2,868,692 popular votes —a small dent in an otherwise successful campaign. Nevertheless, the impact of those same 22,748 votes was anything but paltry in the Electoral College. That slim margin in the popular votes allowed Trump to claim Wisconsin’s ten Electoral votes and, thus, gain a big advantage in the Electoral vote count. Those 22,748 votes in Wisconsin may have been only about 0.8% of Clinton’s nationwide popular-vote margin, but they gave Trump about 27% of his winning margin in the nationwide Electoral vote count. In other words, a small increase in the popular vote margin in Wisconsin caused an increase in the Electoral vote that was more than 30 times higher than its value in terms of popular votes. The combined Trump margin in the three crucial states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) followed a similar pattern. The margin was only 77,744 votes—only 2.7% of Clinton’s popular vote margin nationwide—but it gave Trump the Electoral margin needed to claim the White House.
Nothing like this could have happened without the dead-hand of the Electoral College interfering with the popular vote. One of the more perverse aspects of the Electoral system is its ability to take a relatively small setback in the popular vote in one location and give it an enormous, out-sized impact on the overall election result. This isn’t the first time that happened. In 2000 George Bush beat Al Gore by only 537 votes in Florida. That was all he needed, however, because the Electoral vote system carried him the rest of the way to victory. Those 537 votes represented just a tiny fraction of Gore’s winning national margin—00.1% of 453,895 votes. Nevertheless, that small handful of votes gave Bush 25 of the 270 Electoral votes he needed. In other words his 00.1% in popular votes netted him 9% of the Electoral vote—a jump in value of about 90 times over his actual vote margin in Florida.
So if you are a hacker who wants to cause trouble, where do you look? If you have election-theft on your mind, the Electoral system will provide you with the burglary tools. The strategy is to find a swing-state—a place where you can get the biggest Electoral-vote bang for your buck—and then concentrate your energies there. Don’t just take my word for it. According to the Special Prosecutor, the Russian hackers were advised by a “Texas-based grass roots organization” to concentrate on “purple states.” If you want to steal a presidential election, you don’t go through the messy, expensive task of penetrating voting-systems throughout the entire country. Future thieves—whether foreign or domestic—simply need to find a state where the system is vulnerable and then switch a few thousand votes to pick up an outsized number of Electoral votes. It’s the reason Willie Sutton gave for robbing banks: “that’s where the money is.” The Electoral College is a thief’s dream. You target a few key states and then let the winner-tale-all rules of that system do the rest of the work for you.
The Dismal World of Red-States/Blue-States
You can thank the Electoral College for one of the most dismal features of American public life: the “red-state/blue-state” map. Those bleak charts dominate TV screens during every election. They’ve even spawned an uglier cousin that pops up alongside them: the “safe-state/swing-state” map. These maps show a balkanization of American public life that has now taken on a life of its own, creeping into the national discourse on any number of levels, constantly slicing and categorizing Americans into two groups. It’s hard at times to realize that these maps only derive their power from the underlying distortion of our Electoral vote process. These maps would simply not exist if we were not living under the tortured system of the Electoral College.
If you look closely at those maps, you can see who the real actors are in our political system and which of us are merely observers. If you’re in a “safe” red state come election time, you are basically irrelevant to the outcome. The same is true of a “safe” blue state. In both cases you’re on the outside looking in, while the voters in “swing” states decide who will be President. According to the National Popular Vote Tracker, there were 13 swing states in 2016 where all the campaigning occurred. The other 37 states (with about 67% of voters nationwide) were largely ignored.
Political pros—and election thieves—follow the almost unbending logic of the Electoral College’s distortions. Presidential campaigns are not really a process of trying to win more votes than your opponent. The key is to find and coddle a relatively small number of voters in crucial places, while at the time trying to reassure the millions of other voters that they are not just wasting their time on Election Day. Democratic strategists don’t bother pursuing more votes in either Texas or California. Texas is a waste of time, because the Democratic nominee usually has no chance of winning there. And California is a waste of time for the opposite reason: their candidate is sure to win and any extra votes would just be useless votes. And while Democrats are doing this, Republicans are, of course, making the same political calculations in reverse. There is almost no chance of their candidate losing Texas or winning California, so they direct their efforts to the swing states where there is something to be gained. As a result, neither party campaigns in any safe state, because nothing short of a “wave” vote would shift a safe red state into the blue column or vice versa. They may look to those states for money but never for votes—those extra votes won’t make a difference. There are few immutable laws in politics, but one of them is that under our current Elector system you always ignore useless voters.
It’s hard to argue with the logic of that strategy—and even harder to defend the perverse system that allows it to succeed. Under our current Elector system, the power of your vote is inversely proportional to the number of your fellow supporters in your state. It is inversely proportional, also, to the number of political opponents living there. If there are too many of either one, the value of your vote goes down and you have almost no impact on who actually wins the election. The only decisive votes in presidential elections come from those who live in the political Goldilocks-zone—states where there are not too many friends, not too many opponents, and the political stew is just right.
American democracy is missing something vitally important here. If you live in a safe state, there’s nothing you can do as an individual voter to affect the outcome of the election. Your knowledge of the issues, the intensity of your political beliefs, and your degree of civic engagement are all irrelevant. You could post a house-sign, engage your neighbors, attend a forum, and do all the things you might do for a local election, but you are probably wasting your time. In a presidential election you are basically an observer to an election that is being decided elsewhere.
But if you are in a swing state, the opposite is true. Like it or not, everything is dumped on your shoulders. You may be blasted with constant political advertising to cajole or pester you into voting. Or, paradoxically, you may be the unwitting target of those who are trying to suppress your vote. And since 2016, we know that you may become the victim of groups that will target you with massive dis-information. By Election Day, you may be sick of the whole process. But one way or another, the fate of the election ends up in your hands.
I’ve been voting in California all my life, and it’s been considered a “safe” state almost that entire time. You watch the ebb and flow of the campaign being waged in other parts of the country, and you try to think of something that won’t make you feel useless. That’s why in 2008 I found myself squeezed into a small room north of San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon before the election. People were packed into every corner, holding type-written lists of names that they’d been given, talking as earnestly as they could on the phone to voters across the country in Ohio—people who were complete strangers. I was part of a boiler-room, trying to drum up votes for Barack Obama. The election was going to be decided somewhere else, and we were trying to make a difference. The people in rural Ohio on the other end of the calls were polite enough—at least the ones who bothered to answer the phone. They were generally non-committal about how they planned to vote—or about anything else, for that matter. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. And neither of us really knew what we thought we could achieve through such an awkward, trans-continental exchange.
There’s a general rule that can be drawn from this: If your election system forces you to make cold-calls to strangers across the country to solicit votes for your candidate instead of having face-to-face discussions with your neighbors, there’s something seriously wrong with the system.
(More to follow!)