12/28/2004

Abolish the Electoral College

California senator Dianne Feinstein plans to kick off the next session of Congress by proposing an end to the electoral college.

In introducing the amendment, the Democrat from San Francisco is joining Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who last month introduced a similar proposal in the House, which she said she would reintroduce in the 109th Congress that convenes on Jan. 3.

The two California lawmakers say the current system makes most Americans election bystanders, pointing toward the recent campaign in which President Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, focused almost all their time, energy and campaign funds on a handful of undecided states in search of their electoral votes.

"The Electoral College is an anachronism, and the time has come to bring our democracy into the 21st century," Feinstein said in a statement. "During the founding years of the republic, the Electoral College may have been a suitable system, but today it is flawed and amounts to national elections being decided in several battleground states.''
In the aftermath (or should I say, afterglow) of November's election, I went in search of opinions in favor of and against the electoral college and found plenty. Convincing arguments, however, were in short supply on both sides of the argument. In the end, I have only found one argument - in favor of removing the EC - that is significantly compelling.

The Electoral College gives unequal weight to individual citizens.

Electoral votes are allocated to a state based on its number of Representatives plus Senators. But, every state has two Senators and at least one Representative. This results in unequal weighting of invidiual citizens. Here's an example of how the population compares to the electoral vote count in several states.

StateElectoral VotesPopulationCitizens per
Electoral Vote
California5535,484,453645,171
Texas3422,118,509650,544
Wisconsin105,472,299547,229
South Dakota3764,309254,666
Wyoming3501,242167,080

A vote in Wyoming has almost four times the weight of a vote in California. These specific examples are not anomalies; you'll find this over-weighting of small states over big states to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Now, an argument can be made that this weighting is to protect small states from being marginalized in the electoral process. This is a fair point, but it presumes that most people in a given state vote the same way or prioritize their interests similarly. The map below illustrates the faultiness of that premise, displaying each county as a shade between red and blue based on percentage of voters.


(map by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman
used under Creative Commons License)

The citizens of individual states are clearly not voting as one, and so the idea that we should de-value the voters of Texas to prevent them from overwhelming the voters in Wyoming is absurd.

There are several problems with the Electoral College. It focuses too much attention on "battleground states". It protects the two-party monopoly on power. It's unaccountable to the people it purports to represent. Most importantly though, it discriminates against the citizens of states with higher populations by devaluing their votes. That reason alone should warrant its removal.