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Big States, Blacks Lose in the Electoral College

By Robert Niles. Published March 1, 2001

Al Gore wasn't the only loser in the U.S. Electoral College last fall.

Thanks to a political deal made two centuries ago, millions of voters in large states like California saw their votes effectively ignored in the 2000 presidential election. And worse, the Electoral College system effectively disenfranchised more than half a million African-American adults.

How? As millions of Americans learned in school, the U.S. doesn't allow its citizens to directly elect their President. Instead, "electors" from each state make that decision.

Forty-eight of the fifty states award their electors to the candidate who won that state's popular vote. (Nebraska and Maine award one elector for each Congressional district a candidate wins, plus two electors to the overall state winner.) But the number of electors each state gets to award isn't distributed evenly among the states by population.

Each state gets an elector for every member it has in the House of Representatives. And membership in the House is distributed according to population. But then each state gets two more electors, for their two representatives in the Senate.

Those two extra electors shift the balance of power in the Electoral College toward voters in the nation's smallest states. And leave voters in the big states, like California, with less of a voice than they would have under a truly representative system.

How much less of a voice? Let's illustrate: Take the number of voting-age adults in each state, and divide that by the number of that state's electors. Nationally, that gives one elector for every 344,000 voting age adults. (All numbers in this column are based on the 1990 census - the most recent one under which Congressional districts were assigned.)

But in California - the nation's most populous state - it's one elector for every 407,000 voting-age adults. Meanwhile, Wyoming - the nation's least populous state - gets one elector for every 106,000 adults.

Simply put, a Wyoming resident's vote for President is worth three times as much as a Californian's. Those two extra electors really do make a difference.

Conservatives might argue that Electoral College protects the interests of the smaller states, by giving them a proportionally larger voice in presidential elections. And that's certainly true. But that larger voice comes at the price of diminishing the voices of those living in nation's 15 most populous states, including California, New York and Texas.

And it mocks democracy's most basic principle: "One person--one vote."

The Electoral College also displays a significant racial bias, due to the fact that African Americans are more likely to live in the nation's larger states.

Let's look again at the numbers: Nationwide, each elector represents 344,000 people. That means Wyoming's three electors represent the influence of 1,032,000 adults. But Wyoming has just 318,000 voting-age residents. The Electoral College gives Wyoming an influence equal to having more than 710,000 extra eligible voters.

By the same reasoning, California, with 54 electors, gets the influence of a state with 18,576,000 adults. But more than 21,964,000 voting-age adults live in California. That means the Electoral College costs California the influence of about 3,400,000 eligible voters.

Of course, each eligible vote "lost" among the nation's 15 largest states in this way is made up by an eligible voter "gained" by one of the 35 other states, plus the District of Columbia. But the black influence lost in the larger states isn't made up by black influence in the smaller states, since there's so much smaller a percentage of blacks living in those states, on average.

Add the number of black votes "gained" and "lost," state-by-state, and African Americans end up about 678,000 in the hole. That reflects a real loss in African-American political influence nationwide.

The ultimate irony? The anti-black bias in the Electoral College has helped put an anti-affirmative action politician in the White House, over a pro-affirmative action candidate who won the popular vote. Al Gore earned over 90 percent of the black vote in the recent election, but George W. Bush carried the vast majority of the smaller states, which get the proportionally greater influence in the Electoral College.

To fully understand the extent of the small-state bias in the Electoral College, imagine if we got rid of it by taking away from Gore and Bush the two "extra" electoral votes from each state they won, and making each states' electoral vote equal to its number of seats in the House.

The result? The winner of the popular vote would also be the winner in the Electoral College. Al Gore would be the 43rd President of the United States--by 224 electoral votes to 211.

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.