In 1924 Minnesota and Alabama were almost equal in population, but in the Presidential election that year Minnesota had almost five times as many voters (822,593 as compared to 166,593 for Alabama). This was the Jim Crow era, so the disparity in voting can be largely explained by the harsh restrictions placed on African-American voters in the South. But despite that huge difference in voters, both states cast twelve votes in the Electoral College. How did that happen? One of the more perverse aspects of the Electoral College is that it bases the number of Electoral votes on the population of a state according to the census. That number stays the same whether a state excludes large groups of citizens from voting, imposes unreasonable conditions on registration, makes access to the polls more difficult, or does any of the nefarious things that vote-suppressors have devised over the years. A state can be as arbitrary as it wants, but that has no impact on the number of Electoral votes it is allowed to cast.
The Elector College awards states a built-in “voter-suppression bonus.” Those who are in political control of a state can restrict the vote of their opponents as much as they can get away with, and they pay no price for that action in the national political arena. Under normal rules, the number of people who vote would have an effect on that region’s influence in national politics, but that’s not true under the distortions created by the Electoral College. Imagine a political boss being urged to make the process easier so that more people in his state can vote. His first question may be, “What happens if I don’t?” Sadly, the answer is, “Nothing much.” His state will still cast the same number of Electoral votes, and he and his pals won’t be penalized in the slightest unless the federal government goes through the arduous process of challenging them in court for voting discrimination. His second question may be, “What happens if I do?” The answer is that he will gain nothing and might even weaken his control over the Electoral votes that he now controls. It’s pretty clear which direction he’s likely to go.
The current, distorted Electoral College is a form of institutional racism. It may not have been intended to function that way, but it has become a stubborn barrier that hinders the fight for equal voting rights at every turn. We only tend to notice the Electoral College when it alters the outcome of a presidential election, but it really has an effect across the board. When those in power realize that any effort at voting reform may jeopardize their control over their state’s allotment of Electoral votes, they have every incentive to restrict the franchise of their opponents. And even if they focus only on presidential elections, that effort invariably affects other federal, state, and local elections. Probably the best way to look at the Electoral College is to see it as the mother of all gerrymanders—distorting everything within its reach. The presidency is the big electoral prize, and those who are determined to control a state’s Electoral votes are likely to skew every other decision in a way that will guarantee that.
But the Electoral College discriminates against minority voters in other ways – even without the help of local political bosses. Although the constitutional rule is “one person, one vote,” that standard is routinely violated in Presidential elections. Because of the way Electors are allocated (with each state getting a minimum of three), the system is heavily skewed in favor of voters in small states. Since a high percentage of minority voters reside in larger states, this discrimination against big-state voters hits them much harder.
A comparison of the largest and smallest states illustrates this. Minority residents are more than half of the population of the four largest states (i.e., California, Texas, Florida, and New York) but they make up only about 18% of the population of the four smallest states (i.e., Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota). So any advantage that small-state voters enjoy is disproportionately harmful to minority voters. And that’s just what happens. Overall, individual voters in the four largest states – a great many of them minority voters – had only about 51 % of the voting-power of voters in the four smallest states. In California, for example, the ratio between Electoral votes and popular votes in the 2016 election was one Elector for every 237,847 votes cast, while in Wyoming one Elector was allotted for every 85,283 votes – an advantage in voting-power for Wyoming of almost three to one.
The Electoral College penalizes the big majority of American voters, but it penalizes minority voters even more. It’s time for this dangerous anachronism to go.
Author: Bill Petrocelli
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org – cell 415-279-6005 – 203 Ricardo Road, Mill Valley CA 94941
Lawyer, bookseller and author of “Electoral Bait & Switch: How the Electoral College Hurts American Voters,” soon to be published by Prometheus Books. Bill Petrocelli is co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera and San Francisco