One (hu)man, one vote
Imagine you’re a State Department official charged with helping formulate our country’s policy toward a new government in Africa. As you review the files, you note something odd. Their Constitution grants everyone over the age of 18 the right to vote in national elections – which is good – but it also establishes guidelines for how much those votes count. In the South of the country each resident’s vote counts once. In the West, each vote counts twice. In the East votes are scored at 1.5 per voter. And in the North, each vote counts three times.
The Constitution offers some justification for the disproportionality of the system, although the rationale strikes you as arcane at best. When you talk to your counterpart in that country it’s explained that Northern votes count three times as much as Southern votes to assure fairness.
Of course, we aren’t talking about a nation in Africa at all – we’re talking about the United States, which every four years elects a President using an Electoral College system that’s remarkably similar to what’s described above.
There’s been some movement on Electoral College reform in recent years, and I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more about it in the coming months as California takes up the issue. In 2004 Colorado voters soundly rejected a “proportional” distribution measure that would have split the state’s electoral votes according to the popular vote. A candidate who finished second with 45% of the popular vote would, under this system, be awarded 45% of the state’s electoral votes. (Multiple reform options are discussed here.)
Some people seem to like these reform measures and some seem outraged by them, and how people feel is often a function of what party they support and where the live. Republicans are strongly in favor of the move in California, where the winner-take-all system routinely hands a whopping 55 electoral votes to the Democratic nominee. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the reformers’ allies have not to date proposed similar measures in places like Texas.
Like a lot of people, I feel the inherent wrongness of the system – in most states, it really doesn’t matter whether you show up or not, which results in an odd phenomenon whereby a committed activist in a state like Washington might spend zero energy on the electoral process in his or her own state, but devote quite a bit of energy to the goings-on in Ohio. But the various electoral college reforms seem to have one basic flaw in common – they’re asking the wrong question.
If the problem is that the system needs to more closely reflect the popular will across the country, then why not do this the easy way and abolish the Electoral College? I know the history and rationale behind the EC, and for the sake of argument will stipulate that once upon a time it served a useful purpose. Now, though, it has evolved into a system that generates significant inequities in the process. It quite literally is a system that results in some votes counting 3.5 times as much as others.
From my perspective, that simply isn’t fair.
Let me offer some facts that strike me as interesting. I’m probably not telling the informed reader anything new, but still, the figures are compelling. Using the results of the 2004 election I developed an informal statistic that we’ll call the Proportional Voter Value, or PVV. I started by dividing the total number of popular votes by the number of electoral votes. On a nationwide basis over 121,000,000 votes were cast for President and from that we elected 538 electors. This means that each electoral vote represented roughly 225,800 American voters.
I then extracted a percentage by dividing one by the popular number. All the decimal places were adjusted, leaving a raw number that reflects the relative weight of a voter’s impact on the electoral count. The average national PVV is 44, and if you live in a state like California your vote’s relationship to the state’s electoral total is extremely close to the national average. If your state’s ratio of popular votes to electoral votes is lower, your PPV is higher, which means you have a proportionally greater impact on the final outcome than somebody from a state where the popular:electoral ratio is higher. As a general rule, the highest PVVs occur in states with lower population totals.
So let’s look at some PVV numbers.
In the middle you can see the US average, and around it a cluster of states where the voter weight closely approximates the national norm, including large, populous states like New York and California and growing Sun Belt states like Georgia and my native North Carolina.
Toward the bottom we have states where the voter’s proportional impact on the Presidential election is notably devalued, with Minnesota and the recent battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio getting the worst of things.
At the top of the chart we see several states where a resident’s vote carries a lot more weight. In North Dakota, Vermont, Alaska and Wyoming a voter’s proportional impact is significantly greater than it is elsewhere in the country. This is by design, of course – the framers wanted to assure that smaller states had mechanisms with which to defend their interests, and as noted above, there is a historical perspective from which this perhaps makes sense.
But as I review these figures, I can’t help being conscious of the fact that it’s not the 18th Century anymore and it’s considerably harder, in our present day and age, to make the case that one person’s vote ought to be worth less than another’s.
- As a resident of Colorado, my vote is worth 10% less than the national average.
- If I moved about 90 miles north, the impact of my vote would more than triple.
- Imagine if I lived in Clarksburg, Mass. My PVV is 41, slightly below the national average. But if I move two miles to Stamford, Vermont, my PVV jumps to 96. That means it would count 2.34 times as much as it did a couple miles down the road.
- And if I live in Minnesota and am completely fed up, I can move to Wyoming – a stunningly beautiful state where my vote is now worth more than 3.5 times what it was before.
Feel free to check my math, but you get the idea. And sure, if I live in flyover country (I do, by the way), I might like the fact that I’ve got a hedge against being overrun by socio-political juggernauts on the coasts – it’s good to matter.
But does the badly tilted winner-take-all really make sense in 2007? More to the point, does it seem fair? Can we really make the argument that democracy is best served when the vote of a bookkeeper in Sheridan counts more than three times as much as that of a waitress in Sarasota? Or that a woman jogging along the Vermont/Massachusetts border should routinely pass people along the way whose votes count more than twice as much as hers?
Yes – we need electoral reform. And no, I don’t think this is the only thing about our badly hutzed system that needs attention.
But we’re an advanced, highly sophisticated, and ever more mobile society where locale simply doesn’t mean what it did when the system was established. Instead of replacing one complicated and flawed system with another, what if we take a look at the radical concept that all votes for our nation’s leader should count the same?