Evidence the Electoral College has historically been unfair

Published 10:58 am Wednesday, December 9, 2020

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Months before the 2020 election was held, I asked my students to research whether the Electoral College was fair or not, based upon an argument that the system does not count all votes equally. The results were collected and presented at the Georgia Political Science Association. They help resolve a long-standing dispute between liberals and conservatives on whether the Electoral College is fair or not, and which states benefit: big or small?

As you probably know, a state’s Electoral College vote is based upon how many members of the House of Representatives a state has, as well as a pair of votes for the 2 senators each state has.

Conservatives have argued that the Electoral College is biased against their candidates. That’s because more populous (liberal) states get more Electoral College votes than small conservative states. But Texas tends to vote Republican, and it has the second most Electoral College votes.

Liberals argue that the system is biased against them. If you were to divide a state’s Electoral College votes by their population, you would find that small states would get more Electoral College per capita than larger states. Such studies are usually presented for a single election; few have ever looked this argument historically.

Luckily, I had a lot of LaGrange College undergraduates (Connor Allen, Shawn Bailey, Gavin Battle, Kristina Calixto, Christen Copeland, Andrew Cunningham, Madison Demkowski, Thomas Emmons, DeQueze Fryer, Jayea Gladden, Luke Griffin, Andrew Harris, Fredrick Jones, Kat Juskus, Hunter Norris, Andrew Padovano, William Roberts, Karson Troth, Alexander Tucker, Luke Underhill, Mathias Vera, Tony Villanacci, and Tyson Wilson) willing to take it on.

We looked at elections going back to 1796, dividing the Electoral College votes by the population of the most populous state and comparing it to the Electoral College votes of the least populous state, divided by its population. Students entered their data into a spreadsheet.

First, the bad news. America has never had a 1 person 1 vote ratio, but it was fairer in the early days of the republic, when the votes of a small state like Delaware were only just a little more valuable than the largest state like Virginia. Nowadays, the value of a Wyoming voter is nearly four times as much the value of a Californian voter.

Here’s the good news. Actually, it used to be a lot worse. In the early 1900s, the disparity was much greater for the value of Nevada, whose Electoral College vote per capita was more than ten times the value of the Electoral College vote per capita for New York.

Here’s some more good news. When it came time to present our findings, political science research assistant Tia Braxton did a great powerpoint, to be presented virtually to the Georgia Political Science Association. And a new major, Andrew Cunningham, agreed to be my co-presenter. He did a great job, and even joined in the discussion among the other professors about other ways to analyze the subject, with different calculations of the Electoral College (based upon congressional districts, etc.). When they asked him where he was planning to go to graduate school, they were surprised to learn he was in his first semester at LaGrange College! While the topic was interesting and critical to discuss, it was almost as important to have our undergraduate students test the hypotheses for themselves, and be recognized for it.