In the US, when people vote for President, a vote is a vote, right? Well, not really. Because of the way the electoral college is set up, your vote might be worth less – or more – than you’d think.
The Electoral College
In the US, the President isn’t elected by popular vote. Instead, each state gets a set of electors for each party, and then voters decide which set to send to the election. All the electors meet together in a group called the “Electoral College” after the voting, and each elector casts a vote for his party. Whichever candidate receives the most votes from electors wins and becomes the President.
The founding fathers set this system up because they thought a popular vote was too easy to corrupt. Originally they intended the electoral college to vote on its own, without caring about what the popular opinion was. Over time it morphed into a winner-take-all system where each state’s popular vote determines how the state’s set of electors votes in the actual election.
There are a few problems with this system, though, that make it a little unfair.
Problem 1: Minimum Three Electors Per State
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”–US Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 2
Since the number of electors for each state includes Representatives and Senators, it’s like each state gets a +2 bonus.
This doesn’t really affect the states with larger population, but it gives a boost to states with smaller population – like Wyoming.
In an ideal fair election, each elector would count for the same number of eligible voters; in the 2016 election, that would’ve been 420,837 people per elector. But that’s not how it turns out. This table shows all 50 states, the number of electors they should get (rounded to the closest whole number), the number of electors they actually get, and how many people each elector counts for.
|State||Electors they should get||Actual electors||People per elector|
|District of Columbia||1||3||171,749|
You can see from the table that some states get a huge bonus: 143,227 people in Wyoming have the same voting power as 428,507 people in Wisconsin!
To figure out the actual voting power of any person, you can just divide their state’s “people per electoral vote” by 420,837 (the number of people each electoral vote should be worth). You end up with the following numbers:
|State||Votes Per Person|
|District of Columbia||2.45|
It seems the electoral college thinks people from South Dakota count twice as much as people from Maryland. Some states get hit especially hard because of rounding the number of electors – people in Ohio are only worth about 7/8 of a person.
It doesn’t stop there – the electoral college is racist, too. Since more populous states tend to have more African Americans than less populous states, black people don’t have as much voting power. By counting population and averaging, I worked out how much voting power the average member of each race has:
|Race/Ethnicity||Average Voting Power|
|Black or African American||0.97|
|Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander||1.18|
|Native American & White||1.05|
|Asian & White||1.01|
|Black or African American & White||0.98|
|Native American and Black or African American||1.00|
|Other combinations of races||1.11|
|Hispanic or Latino||0.96|
The people worst off are Hispanics/Latinos, counting as only 96% of a person according to the Electoral College. Asians are 98% of a person, and Black people are 97% of a person. (I thought we’d gotten well past the days of counting black people as less-than-people, but I guess I was wrong.)
So if you want more political influence, can you just move to Wyoming? Not quite…
Problem 2: Winner-take-all
On Election Day, whichever candidate wins the majority vote in a state gets all of that state’s electors, not just a majority. This is called “winner-take-all”, and it means that if you vote against whoever wins your state, your vote ends up counting for 0. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote – no one knows whose vote counts for 0 until after the election.)
Two states (Nebraska and Maine) use a proportional system instead of winner-take-all, but for the rest, the only voters who end up mattering are the ones who win. That means they have a lot more influence than everybody else does.
And this brings us to a third problem: voter turnout.
Problem 3: Voter turnout
You see, not everyone is required to vote – and not everyone does. Those that don’t vote obviously have zero effect on the election, and those who do vote end up with more power. (After all, if only three people voted, those three would each count for a third of the votes.)
This fact, combined with Problem #2, means that in the 2016 elections, people who voted for the candidate that won their state ended up with quite a lot of influence overall. For example, in Alaska, 130,415 people voted for Donald J. Trump – and those people wielded all three of Alaska’s electoral votes.
Using state populations and voter turnout from 2016, we can estimate how valuable the winning voters of each state were, according to the electoral college.
However, there’s one more thing to talk about first.
Problem 4: Faithless Electors
Electors are technically not required to vote with their party, although they almost always do. But every once in a while, an elector decides to go against their pledge and vote for whoever they want. This is called being “faithless”.
Some states have penalties for voting against their pledge, and some states just replace the so-called “faithless” elector with another one who votes like he’s supposed to, but some states let it pass through.
If enough electors voted faithlessly, they could pick whatever candidate they wanted to be President and disregard the popular vote entirely. Nothing like that has ever happened, but in 2016 ten electors did try to jump ship and vote for other candidates. Seven were successful, and three were stopped by their state laws.
Faithless electors actually make the voting more equalized, because they end up representing the minority who didn’t vote for the candidate that won the state. In 2016 this happened in Hawaii (1), Texas (2), and Washington (4).
The End Result
All of these problems mean that most people in the US have exactly 0 influence on who becomes President. The minority that do have an effect – about 30.9% of the population in 2016 – have so much influence it’s as if they voted several times.
In 2016, ignoring everyone whose vote didn’t count, Donald Trump received 57.17% of the votes, and Hillary Clinton received 42.83%. This amounts to about 17.7% of the total eligible voters electing Donald Trump to be president.
Here’s a table of how much your vote was worth in 2016 – if you voted for the candidate who won your state. Personally, my vote was worth 0.
|State||Effective Votes Per Majority Supporter|
|Disctrict of Columbia||4.85|
Data and Sources
You can see all my math and data in one spreadsheet here: