If you are a resident of California, you count as about eight-tenths of a person, at least as far as Article II of the U.S. Constitution counts it.
If you’re from Wyoming, meanwhile, you’re worth more than three average people, or worth nearly four times a California resident.
This crazy imbalance is through the magic of something called the Electoral College, an oddity in the Constitution that Americans rediscover every four years – and usually don’t like all that much.
We don’t pick the president on the basis of the popular vote, but rather in an indirect manner, using state-by-state results. When you voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (or anyone else) you were actually voting for a slate of “electors” who had promised to show up at the state’s meeting of the Electoral College (this year on Dec. 19) and cast their votes for your candidate.
The system was designed in part to avoid the volatility of the mood of the masses (a thing that the Founding Fathers feared intensely) but mostly to keep big states from simply rolling over small states. In those days, Virginia was the behemoth, with nearly 20 percent of the American population, followed by Pennsylvania with about 15 percent.
Had the Constitution provided for a nationwide vote, the two big states could have allied with one or two of the mid-sized ones – New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina – to dominate the choice for executive office. States such as Delaware and Georgia, each with tiny fractions of the population, were not about to have that.
So instead they insisted on this indirect system. Each state was granted the number of votes equal to its congressional delegation – two senators and however many members of the House of Representatives they had. Since the Constitution guarantees each state at least one Representative, even the smallest state enjoyed at least three electoral votes.
The presidential election system was altered a bit by the 12th amendment, but the Electoral College was left in place, meaning it constrains the large states to this day.
Look at it this way. Using 2014 estimates, California had a population of around 30 million, according to the Census Bureau, and has 55 electoral votes, the largest state by far on both counts. Wyoming, meanwhile, had just 441,000 residents, by far the smallest – even smaller than the District of Columbia – but it still enjoys its constitutionally mandated three electoral votes.
If you do the math, that means each California elector represents 527,818 residents, while each Wyoming elector represents just 147,000. The average elector nationwide represents 445,870, which means a California resident is worth 84.5 percent of the average American, while each Wyoming resident is worth 303.3 percent.
The numbers change a little bit if you take out non-citizens (legal or otherwise) who can’t vote, but the basic picture is the same – residents of larger states such as California and Texas are wildly underrepresented in the presidential race while residents of small states such as Wyoming and Vermont are wildly overrepresented.
California doesn’t even have it the worst. Florida is the most underrepresented state, with each elector representing 531,517 residents (California is #2).
That’s why it is possible for Donald Trump to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College (and this is not the first time such a thing has happened).
Every few presidential elections there is talk of abolishing the system, but that hardly seems likely. Smaller states are not going to sit still for watching their advantage removed by amending the Constitution. They reason, probably correctly, that were the president chosen by popular vote, a few key metro areas – such as Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago – would become presidential battlegrounds every four years, while small cities and rural areas would be completely ignored by candidates.
There are a couple of other ways to change the system. One would be to remove the arbitrary 435 member limit on the House of Representatives, set by Congress in 1911. The Constitution only sets a hazy limit on the size of the House – no more than one member for every 30,000 residents, but that only means the House could be as large as 8,000 members given today’s population. If Congress were to raise the size of the House – to, say 1,000 members – it would provide for more Electoral Votes and reduce (but not eliminate) the imbalance between the largest and smallest states.
Nobody, however, seems eager for that kind of crowd on Capitol Hill.
One other intriguing possibility would get around the Congress and also avoid having to amend the constitution at all. It is known as the “National Popular Vote” project. It relies on the fact that states are allowed to allocate their electoral votes however they like – most do it in the traditional winner-take-all way, but a few do it in other ways, such as Maine, which allocates them by congressional districts.
National Popular Vote, founded in 2006, calls on states to pass laws allocating their electoral votes in line with the national vote total, regardless of the results within their own borders. If enough states do so to guarantee 270 electoral votes – the current threshold needed to win the White House – the Electoral College would become a mere formality, whether other states like it or not.
So far, 10 states and Washington, D.C, have passed such laws, representing 165 electoral votes, though all of those states have made the laws contingent on the idea passing in enough states to guarantee the magic 270, so the system has never been tested.
There has been some debate about the effectiveness, or even the legality, of such a system, but it still strikes me as an interesting idea. The NPV website is a wealth of information about the project and the Electoral College as a whole: nationalpopularvote.com.
For the moment, however, expect to remain just eight-tenths of a person when it comes time to elect the next president.