When it comes to electing the president, not all votes are created equal. And chances are yours will count less than those of a select few.
For example, the vote of Dave Smith in Sheridan, Wyo., counts almost three-and-a-half times as much mathematically as those of his wife’s aunts in northeastern Ohio.
Why? Electoral College math.
A statistical analysis of the state-by-state voting-eligible population by The Associated Press shows that Wyoming has 139,000 eligible voters — those 18 and over, U.S. citizens and non-felons — for every presidential elector chosen in the state. In Ohio, it’s almost 476,000 per elector, and it’s nearly 478,000 in neighboring Pennsylvania.
But there’s mathematical weight and then there’s the reality of political power in a system where the president is decided not by the national popular vote but by an 18th century political compromise: the Electoral College.
Smith figures his vote in solid Republican Wyoming really doesn’t count that much because it’s a sure Mitt Romney state. The same could be said for ballots cast in solid Democratic states like New York or Vermont. In Ohio, one of the biggest battleground states, Smith’s relatives are bombarded with political ads. In Wyoming, Smith says, “The candidates don’t care about my vote because we only see election commercials from out-of-state TV stations.”
The nine battleground states where Romney and Barack Obama are spending a lot of time and money — Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin — have 44.1 million people eligible to vote. That’s only 20.7 percent of the nation’s 212.6 million eligible voters. So nearly four of five eligible voters are pretty much being ignored by the two campaigns.
When you combine voter-to-elector comparisons and battleground state populations, there are clear winners and losers in the upcoming election.
More than half the nation’s eligible voters live in states that are losers in both categories. Their states are not closely contested and have above-average ratios of voters to electors. This is true for people in 14 states with 51 percent of the nation’s eligible voters: California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana and Kentucky. Their votes count the least.
The biggest winners in the system, those whose votes count the most, live in just four states: Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada. They have low voter-to-elector ratios and are in battleground states. Only 4 percent of the nation’s eligible voters — 1 in 25 — live in those states.
It’s all dictated by the U.S. Constitution, which set up the Electoral College. The number of electors each state gets depends on the size of its congressional delegation. Even the least populated states — like Wyoming — get a minimum of three, meaning more crowded states get less proportionally.
If the nation’s Electoral College votes were apportioned in a strict one-person, one-vote manner, each state would get one elector for every 395,000 eligible voters. Some 156 million voters live in the 20 states that have a larger ratio than that average: That’s 73 percent — nearly three out of four.
And for most people, it’s even more unrepresentative. About 58 percent of the nation’s eligible voting population lives in states with voter-to-elector ratios three times as large as Wyoming’s. In other words, Dave Smith’s voting power is about equal to three of his wife’s aunts and uncles in Ohio, and most people in the nation are on the aunt-and-uncle side of that unbalanced equation.
“It’s a terrible system; it’s the most undemocratic way of electing a chief executive in the world, ” said Paul Finkelman, a law professor at Albany Law School who teaches this year at Duke University. “There’s no other electoral system in the world where the person with the most votes doesn’t win.”
The statistical analysis uses voter eligibility figures for 2010 calculated by political science professor Michael McDonald at George Mason University. McDonald is a leader in the field of voter turnout.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming defends the Electoral College system for protecting small states in elections, which otherwise might be overrun by big city campaigning: “Once you get rid of the Electoral College, the election will be conducted in New York and San Francisco.”
Sure it gives small states more power, but at what price? asks Douglas Amy, a political science professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts: “This clearly violates that basic democratic principle of one person, one vote. Indeed, many constitutional scholars point out that this unfair arrangement would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on those grounds if it were not actually in the Constitution.”
Article 2 of the Constitution says presidents are voted on by electors (it doesn’t mention the word college) with each state having a number equal to its U.S. senators and representatives. While representatives are allocated among the states proportional by population, senators are not. Every state gets two. So Wyoming has 0.2 percent of the nation’s voting-eligible population but almost 0.6 percent of the Electoral College. And since the number of electors is limited to 538, some states get less proportionately.
Adding to this, most states have an all-or-nothing approach to the Electoral College. A candidate can win a state by just a handful of votes but get all the electors. That happened in 2000, when George W. Bush, after much dispute, won Florida by 537 votes out of about 6 million and got all 27 electoral votes. He won the presidential election but lost the national popular vote that year.
That election led some states to sign a compact promising to give their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. But that compact would go into effect only if and when states with the 270 majority of electoral votes signed on. So far nine states with 132 electoral votes have signed, all predominantly Democratic states.
Because of the 2000 election, conservatives and Republicans tend to feel that changing the Electoral College would hurt them, George Mason’s McDonald said, and after their big victories in 2010, the popular vote compact movement stalled. But that analysis may not necessarily be true, he added. McDonald said before recent opinion polls started to break for Obama there seemed to be a possibility that he could win the electoral vote and lose the popular vote because of weak turnout — but still enough to win — in traditionally Democratic states like New York and California.
Former Stanford University computer scientist John Koza, who heads National Popular Vote, which is behind the electoral reform compact, said Democrat John Kerry would have won the Electoral College in 2004 while Republican Bush won the popular vote, if only 60,000 Bush votes in Ohio had changed to Kerry votes.
History shows that candidates have won the presidency but not the popular vote four times, and in each case it was the Democrat who got the most votes but lost the presidency: 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.
The Associated Press analysis suggests that in this year’s election, the current system seems to benefit Romney. The AP re-apportioned electoral votes based on voting-eligible population and not congressional delegations, so that, for example, Wyoming and the District of Columbia would have only one elector instead of three, and California would have 58 instead of 55.
Based on polling, states strongly in the Romney camp have 191 electoral votes in the current system but would have only 178 if the electoral votes were allocated based on voting-eligible population. Based on similar polling, Obama would benefit by about five electoral votes if electors were apportioned by that population. The nine battleground states would gain even more sway, jumping from 110 electoral votes to 118.
That would compound the perceived problem of a shrinking number of battleground states being all that mattered in the election, leaving the overwhelming majority of states standing around as “spectator states,” Koza said.
John McGinnis, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, defends the current Electoral College, arguing that while the mathematics of electoral proportionate calculations is correct, the conclusion that it over-represents small states is not. Larger states still have more sway because they have more electoral votes, he said.
Further, the historical agreement to give each state two senators regardless of their population and to base electoral votes on congressional delegation rather than population “was an essential compromise” when framers were drafting the Constitution, McGinnis said. Without that compromise, there might not have been a Constitution or nation, he said.
But Finkelman said his reading of history is that the compromise wasn’t about power between small and large states as much as it was about power of slave-holding states. He said James Madison wanted direct popular election of the president, but because African-American slaves wouldn’t count, that would give more power to the North. So the framers came up with a compromise to count each slave as 3/5ths of a person for representation in Congress and presidential elections, he said.
Electoral College supporter McGinnis said the emphasis on battleground states is actually good because they are representative of the country. But he acknowledges as an Illinois resident, “I realize when I vote here it’s completely irrelevant.”
George Mason University Elections Project with eligible voters figures: http://elections.gmu.edu/index.html
U.S. Electoral College: http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/
National Popular Vote campaign: http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/index.php
Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears